The Coming of the CH-53K to the Amphibious Force: How to Describe a New 21st Century Air Platform and Its Impact?


2016-02-29  The venerable CH-53 has been a staple for Marines in providing heavy lift since the Vietnam War.

The origins of the heavy lift helo is described by Wikipedia as follows:

In 1960, the United States Marine Corps began to seek a replacement for their HR2S piston-powered helicopters. On 27 January 1961, the Marine Corps began working with the other three U.S. armed services on the “Tri-Service VTOL transport”, which would eventually emerge as the Vought-Hiller-Ryan XC-142A tiltwing. 

The design became more elaborate and the program stretched out, causing the Marines to drop out when they decided they would not receive a working machine in a satisfactory timeframe. In the end, the XC-142A, although a very innovative and capable machine, never entered production. 

In March 1962, the United States Navy’s Bureau of Naval Weapons, acting on behalf of the Marines, issued a request for a “Heavy Helicopter Experimental / HH(X)”. The specifications dictated a load capability of 8,000 pounds (3,600 kg) with an operational radius of 100 nautical miles (190 km; 120 mi) at a speed of 150 knots (280 km/h; 170 mph). The HH(X) was to be used in the assault transport, aircraft recovery, personnel transport, and medical evacuation roles. In the assault transport role, it was to be mostly used to haul heavy equipment instead of troops. 

Sikorsky YCH-53A. Credit: Sikorsky
Sikorsky YCH-53A. Credit: Sikorsky

In response, Boeing Vertol offered a modified version of the CH-47 Chinook; Kaman Aircraft offered a development of the British Fairey Rotodyne compound helicopter; and Sikorsky offered what amounted to a scaled-up version of the S-61R, with twin General Electric T64 turboshafts and the dynamic system of the S-64, to be designated the “S-65”. 

Kaman’s proposal quickly died when the British government dropped its backing of the Rotodyne program. Competition between Boeing Vertol and Sikorsky was intense, with the Chinook having an advantage because it was being acquired by the United States Army. Sikorsky threw everything into the contest and was awarded the contract in July 1962. 

The YCH-53A prototype in 1964 

The Marines originally wanted to buy four prototypes but ran into funding problems. Sikorsky, determined to keep the deal, cut their estimate for development costs and said that the program could be done with two prototypes. The military bought off on the proposal, and in September 1962 Sikorsky was awarded a contract for a little under US$10 million for two “YCH-53A” prototypes, as well as a mockup and a ground-test airframe. 

The development program did not go entirely smoothly, due to a shortage of engineering resources plus various failures of subcontractors and the government, but these problems were gradually overcome. There was also the problem that U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara was pushing to maintain “commonality” between the armed services by using the Chinook, but the Marines managed to convince McNamara’s staff that the Chinook could not meet their requirements without numerous expensive changes. 

All these obstacles overcome, the first YCH-53A performed its initial flight at the Sikorsky plant in Stratford, Connecticut, on 14 October 1964, about four months behind schedule. The Marines had already placed an initial production contract for 16 helicopters in September. Flight trials went more smoothly than expected, helping make up for the lost time in development. It received the military designation and name “CH-53A Sea Stallion”. Delivery of production CH-53s began in 1966. 

The CH-53A arrived in Vietnam in January 1967 and proved useful, eventually recovering even more downed aircraft than the CH-54. A total of 141 CH-53As were built, including the two prototypes. The U.S. Navy acquired 15 CH-53As from the USMC in 1971 for airborne mine countermeasures (AMCM) activities. The helicopters had more powerful T64-GE-413 turboshafts installed and received the designation “RH-53A”.

There have been changes over the years as the CH-53 migrated from an A to an E model.

But it has been a voyage of a Type/Series/Model not unlike other programs, changes have been made, upgrades have been built in, but the basic helicopter has been recognizable throughout its evolution.

A comprehensive look at the evolution of the helicopter from the A through to the E has been provided in the Sikorsky archives and can be found here:

The original helicopter was later modified to the CH‑53D, which had more powerful engines and added engine air particle separators to prevent ingestion of dust.

Ch-53E operating in Afghanistan. Credit: USMC
Ch-53E operating in Afghanistan. Credit: USMC

The growth version of the CH‑53D added a third engine and a seventh main rotor blade, drastically increasing maximum gross weight by 75%.

It became the largest and most powerful helicopter outside of Russia.

Although a CH-53, the CH-53K is not easily understood as an evolution of earlier models.

The predicate for the CH-53 series really is founded in the context of 1960s technologies and concepts of operations.

The predicate for the CH-53K is 21st century military aviation, approaches, materials and technologies and is entering the force when a very different concept of operations is being shaped than the one forged in the 1960s and which evolved forward from the Vietnam War.

And as a 21st century platform which is designed to be embedded into a transformed USMC insertion force, enabled by Ospreys, F-35Bs, and digital interoperability among other new technologies, the K is both enabled by and enables the shift to distributed operations.

The K has come on line more slowly than intended, in part because putting together the pieces of a new 21st century capability into an integrated platform is not easy. And because the new platform is quite different from its predecessor, in terms of design, construction, testing, and capabilities, it is not as easy to describe as if it was a completely new type of aircraft.

Nonetheless, it is a 21st century aircraft for a 21st century USMC and its approach to operations.

It simply cannot be understood simply in terms of step grade evolution.

Credit Images: USN and USMC

We are starting a new series of the CH-53K which will provide an update on the program as the program matures and gets ready for Initial Operating Capability or IOC.

We last visited the K in 2013 after an earlier interview with a Marine involved with the program in 2011.

During the 2013 interview the shortfall in the heavy lift fleet and the need for the K was highlighted.

A key asset being added to the 21st century amphibious fleet is a new version of the CH-53…. During this year’s visit to New River, we had a chance to talk with a key Marine involved in the upcoming testing of the CH-53K and who is moving to the test facility in West Palm Beach, Florida at the Sikorsky Test Development center this fall. 

Major Foster T. Carlile is the CH-53K Operational Test Director. 

SLD: Could you describe the current situation with the CH-53E fleet? 

Major Carlile: We are approaching a serious situation with respect the CH-53E fleet of aircraft.  The airframes reaching their 10,000 hour limit, combined with the treacheries of flying in combat for over a decade has taken its toll. 

Additionally, the new technology available to the CH-53K is a giant-giant leap relative to the CH-53E. 

In this series we will describe the “giant-giant leap” from the E to the K and how this will impact USMC operational approaches as well as how it reflects shifts in those approaches.

We will start by looking at the design for sustainability element inherent to 21st century air systems, and seen in programs like the F-35 or the A400M. The key role for software and digital systems is built in from the ground up and is a key element for shifting the approach to sustainability.

For the Marines, this shift started with the Osprey and lessons learned there are being applied to the K program as well. And given the key role of VMX-22 in the Osprey, F-35B and K programs, the squadron will shape lessons learned helpful across 21st century innovation for the air element for the USMC.

We will next look at the interaction between the platform and the operational context and examine how the one impacts on the other , and vice versa.

And then a visit to West Palm where tests are underway will provide a comprehensive update on the program, testing and shaping the way ahead.

Also important will be to understand how the K fits into a dynamically changing force which is shaping an integrated approach to operate in the 21st century battlespace.

In an earlier article, we highlighted some of the key criteria to examine with regard to a new platform coming into a 21st century integrated force:

Thus, when one approaches the acquisition of new platforms, a key consideration needs to be what does a new platform bring to the battlespace?

How can its organic capabilities enhance the capability of the force to provide for an integrated effect?

How can the platform contribute to the multiplier effect of its operation within the battlespace?

How can the force best survive and prevail and how do new platforms contribute to that effort?

How upgradeable is the platform with regard to the other key capabilities operating in the battlespace?

How can the central role of software upgradeability best be recognized and supported in building out an information secure, decision dominant force?

How to measure cost effectiveness in an integrated battlespace world?

How do new approaches to sustainability built into 21st century systems get recognized as cutting edge ways to have a more effective and sustainable force, rather than being audited to death by 20th century practices and thinking?

The most expensive acquisition could well be one that is the cheapest up front in terms of initial price tag, but is not an effective member of an integrated battlespace.  

Such platforms might only  contribute to a narrow function without any real capability to evolve with the forces shaping a way ahead to reshape capabilities to achieve key effects in the evolving battlespace and within that battlespace shaping an open ended force integration process.

According to the USMC, the CH-53K is described and understood as follows:

The CH-53K “King Stallion” is critical to sea-based expeditionary maneuver warfare for our Corps. As MAGTF equipment gets heavier, demand for vertical heavy lift assets increase. Heavier equipment, such as up-armored HMMWVs, the future JLTV, and the LAV eliminate medium-lift assets as lift platforms and increase demand for the heavy lift CH-53K.

The CH-53K provides our Corps with the ability to transport 36,000 lbs of external cargo and is specifically designed to lift 27,000 lbs of cargo up to 110 nautical miles in support of future warfighting concepts.

The CH-53K generates nearly three times the external lift capability of the CH-53E under the same environmental conditions, while fitting within the same shipboard footprint. Performance improvements enable vertical insertion of dual-slung up-armored HMMWVs, the JLTV, LAV, or three individually tailored resupply loads, which are delivered to three different operating bases using the independent triple-hook external load system.

The CH-53K provides unparalleled lift and range capability under high-temperature and high altitude austere conditions, similar to those found in Afghanistan, thereby greatly expanding the commander’s operational reach. It is the only fully “marinized” helicopter that can lift 100 percent of air transportable equipment from amphibious shipping to inland objectives.

The CH-53K, has more lift capacity than present day heavy lift assets, and is the aircraft of choice to minimize the MAGTF footprint while maximizing operational efficiency.

Major system improvements include:

  • more powerful engines
  • increased lift capability
  • enhanced drive train
  • advanced composite rotor blades
  • modernized digital cockpit
  • improved external and internal cargo handling systems
  • increased survivability and force-protection measures.

The CH-53K designed to greatly improve heavy lift performance and survivability while reducing shipboard logistical requirements, operating costs, and direct maintenance man hours-per-flight hour compared to the CH-53E.

Operational Impact: 

The CH-53K maintainability and reliability enhancements decrease recurring operating costs significantly, while improving aircraft efficiency and operational effectiveness compared to the CH-53E.  Its Fly-by-Wire flight controls provide unprecedented stability and flight safety.

Survivability and force protection enhancements significantly increase protection for aircrew and passengers. The CH-53K will transport three independent external loads tailored to individual unit requirements and provide the critical logistics air bridge to facilitate sea-based and distributed operations.

The CH-53K is the only Marine Corps helicopter capable of carrying 463L Air Force pallets internally, which greatly shortens logistics delivery timelines from fixed wing transport aircraft.

Foreign militaries are clearly interested in the aircraft as well with Germany and Israel heading the list. For these militaries, the capabilities of the K significantly redefine lift capabilities for an insertion force, the kind of force we have argued is becoming central to 21st century operations and threat reductions.

As we have argued earlier: 

For the United States, the land wars of the past decade led to a significant redirection of its military forces and highlighting key role for the US Army and the USMC playing its ground operations role and to the support of those forces by the US Air Force and the US Navy. A large logistics operation via land, sea, and ground along with significant expenditures to civilian contractors such as Maersk to support the effort was entailed as well.

It has led to a significant bulging of the Department of Defense toward the US Army and its leadership with the other forces largely in a support role.

A major centerpiece of this effort has been Counter Insurgency Operations and the training of local forces to support local governance or a significant role highlighted for national building.

Stability operations were highlighted over traditional conventional operations, and the nuclear dimension of the force structure reduced and largely de-emphasized.

This bulging makes no sense going forward. 

he U.S. has insertion forces able to engage and withdraw, and several core allies are shaping similar forces, rather than setting up long-term facilities and providing advisers as targets.

The ability to establish air dominance to empower multi-mission USMC insertion force able to operate effectively, rapidly and withdraw is a core effort that now exists in US way of war for emerging 21st century conflicts.

The classic dichotomy of boots on the ground versus airpower really does not capture the evolving capabilities of either airpower or the evolving capabilities of ground forces capitalizing on those evolving capabilities to provide for more effective and more lethal insertion forces.

Clearly, the K is part of this evolving transition. And as such, deserves a close examination which we will provide in this series.