Now that the CH-53K King Stallion has moved into production for the U.S. Marine Corps, manufacturer Lockheed Martin (Chalet 324) is eyeing other buyers for the dramatically improved heavy-lift helicopter.
The early focus is Germany, one of three international users of the legacy Sikorsky CH-53 with Israel and Japan—all considered potential customers for the King Stallion, among other nations. The German army has a requirement for 40 to 60 new helicopters to replace its current CH-53Gs, a selection that Boeing also hopes to win with the CH-47F Chinook. The contractors await a formal request for proposals, which was not expected for another year or two.
Lockheed Martin asserts the Marines will be using the King Stallion years before Boeing fields a planned Block 2 upgrade of the Chinook in the 2020s. The U.S. Army granted the Chinook program Milestone B approval to move from technology maturation to engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) in early April. Boeing expects the Army will make a Milestone C decision to begin low-rate initial production (LRIP) in 2021, with deliveries following in 2023.
The U.S. Department of Defense approved a Navy request to start CH-53K production on April 4. The Milestone C decision advanced the program from the EMD phase to LRIP. With a program-of-record requirement for 200 CH-53Ks, the Marine Corps aims to begin initial operations of the K model in 2019.
“This program now is actively transitioning from a development program into a full-fledged production program, and we’re really excited about that. It means that the 53K platform will be ready for international fielding,” said Beth Parcella, Lockheed Martin capture director for CH-53K international programs. “By the time Germany receives its first aircraft, it will have been in service with the Marine Corps for probably at least four years.”
The Chinook Block 2 upgrade schedule “may not align as cleanly as the K does,” she added.
Lockheed Martin also argues that a CH-53K, powered by three 7,500 shp-class GE Aviation T408-GE-400 engines, will be more efficient than a twin-engine Chinook. The new GE engine provides a significant increase in horsepower over the T64-GE-416 that powers the CH-53E Super Stallion, while at the same time consuming 20 percent less fuel, with 60 percent fewer parts, Parcella said. German engine manufacturer MTU has 20 percent of the content on the new engine, she added.
The airframe and engine manufacturers say the T408 empowers the King Stallion to carry a 27,000-pound external load over a mission radius of 110 nm in hot weather conditions, nearly triple the external load capacity of the CH-53E. “All in all we believe having a modern engine that’s far easier to maintain will lead to an attractive rate of maintenance,” Parcella said, when asked to make the case for three versus two engines.
Four system demonstration test article CH-53Ks had joined the flight-test program at the Lockheed Martin-Sikorsky Aircraft facility in West Palm Beach, Florida. Plans called for moving the flight-test effort to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland. Final assembly of production CH-53Ks will take place in Stratford, Connecticut.
There will be no CH-53K to inspect at this year’s Paris Air Show, although Parcella said the 2019 edition of the airshow is a possibility. Nearer term, Lockheed Martin aims to display the new helicopter at the ILA Berlin Air Show in April 2018, assuming the Marine Corps approves.
Starting in the 1970s, Germany accumulated a fleet of 112 license-built CH-53Gs; about 60 remain actively flying. In February, Airbus Helicopters said it received a contract from Germany’s Federal Office of Bundeswehr Equipment, Information Technology and In-Service Support for obsolescence management of components on 26 CH-53Gs. Retrofits were to take place this year through 2022, extending operation of the helicopter to at least 2030.
Lockheed Martin is also looking to the future of the CH-53K. “Now that we’ve achieved Milestone C and we’re moving into production, we are starting to think very seriously about the future,” Parcella said. “We’re really hopeful that other foreign militaries will see the variety of applications with this aircraft and will recognize that there are mission sets that only an aircraft like this can complete.”