Preparing the CH-53K for USMC Operations: A New Capability for a New Strategic Environment


By Robbin Laird

A recent news story highlighted progress in the preparation of the new heavy lift helicopter, the CH-53 K, for the USMC.

According to Megan Eckstein of USNI News in a story published on December 17, 2019:

“The Marine Corps and Sikorsky have resolved the engine integration issues that slowed down the CH-53K King Stallion heavy-lift helicopter program, the service announced today.

“The helicopter’s test program was overhauled in the spring after falling behind due to testing inefficiencies and challenges with the engine, including exhaust gas re-ingestion (EGR).

“In April, the Marine Corps signed a $1.13-billion contract with Sikorsky for Lots 2 and 3, though the contract was somewhat scaled back compared to previous plans due to cost growth and testing delays.

“Today’s announcement that the engine problems have been resolved makes more realistic the government/industry team’s plans to take the helicopter on sea trials in the spring and ultimately conduct a first deployment by 2023 or 2024.”

I had an opportunity in January 2020, to follow up on this story. I went to Pax River in January 2020, to discuss the progress of the program with Colonel Jack Perrin Program Manager, PMA-261 H53 Heavy Lift Helicopters, US Naval Air Systems Command at Pax River Naval Air Station.

We started our discussion with the news story.

We discussed the importance of not only solving the problem but the importance of the way the problem was solved to enhance collaboration between industry and government to achieve further progress in the program.

We then went on to discuss why the program was critical to the shifts in Marine Corps operations outlined in the Commandant’s Guidance.

From my perspective, the question of the impact of a new heavy lift helicopter capability was not adequately understood, for this new capability was coming into the force at a key turning point in terms of building the force necessary for the new strategic environment.

And then we discussed briefly, the question of the nature of strategic lift necessary to support what I have coined the integrated distributed force or what might be called the distributed integratable force.

Resolving the Engine Integration Issue

Col. Perrin underscored that after significant numbers of flight tests and working with the mature aircraft, a problem was identified which was considered a key choke point to moving forward more rapidly to achieve initial operating capacity of the aircraft.

The engine is working very well and the airframe and aircraft over all have performed well.  The problem identified after hours of flight testing was that the integration between the engine and the aircraft needed to be improved.

According to Perrin, a problem facing three engine helicopters is exhaust gas coming into the aircraft.

Exhaust gas re-ingestion (EGR). EGR occurs when the hot engine gasses are ingested back into the system and can cause increased life-cycle costs, poor engine performance and degradation, as well as time-on-wing decreases, engine overheating and even stalls.

EGR is an issue for all three-engine helicopters, to include the CH-53E Super Stallion. The program office was determined to find a production solution for the CH-53K, as was done for the CH-53E.

What needed to be fixed was to find a way to eliminate this problem on the CH-53K.

Obviously, this is a problem for flight operations, but also, exhaust gases were affecting the airframe as well.

According to Colonel Perrin, “The CH-53E is only about 13% composites; the CH-53K is about 70%, and exhaust gases affecting the air frame would create maintenance problems over time.”

He underscored that to fix the problem and to be better able to bring the aircraft to IOC, they used an unprecedented coming-together of highly skilled engineers with a variety of expertise to mitigate an ongoing engine issue for the CH-53K King Stallion, including industry, the Marines and government.

They used advanced computer modelling to come up with a range of solutions and then narrowed down to a particular solution which was then implemented.

And after testing, this solution was successful which allowed putting the aircraft back on track for the projected IOC date.

The fix is important; but also, the way in which it has been done – integrating Marines, with government and industry.

The way the solution has been reached provides a solid foundation for completing the way ahead to IOC.

The Launch of the CH-53K is Not Like the Osprey

I had the opportunity to see the USMC introduce the Osprey and to watch its evolution since that time. It has had a significant impact on Marine Corps operations and has laid the foundation for the next generation distributed integratable operations.

But when it was launched, it was a time of pioneering with digital maintenance and finding ways to maintaining the new tiltrotor technology. It is very different for the CH-53K, because much of the preparation for IOC has been a focus upon the maintainability of the aircraft.

I have visited the log demo for the CH-53K team located at New River Marine Corps Air Station and have seen the key role which VMX-1 located there is having in shaping a credible approach to maintaining the aircraft before it is coming into Marine Corps operations.

According to Col. Perrin, the VMX-1 team comes regularly to Pax River to work on preparing for the operational launch of the aircraft and the working relationship between the test, maintenance and industrial teams is providing a solid foundation for the introduction of a much more mature aircraft in the case of the CH-53K than was able to be done at the time of the launch of the Osprey.

This is certainly good news, but this also creates a problem.

The CH-53K which will enter service in the next couple of years is not at the equivalent point of maturity as when the Osprey entered the service. It is significantly advanced in terms of its maturation, but the challenge will be for this to be recognized so that numbers of the aircraft can be ramped up and introduced more rapidly into the force than the Osprey experience.

A New Capability for a New Strategic Environment

 The Commandant’s Guidance highlighted the nature of the new strategic environment and the importance of distributed operations leveraging both sea-basing and expeditionary or mobile basing.

It is clear that heavy lift is a key enabler of such a concept of operations.

As Col. Perrin noted in our conversation: “The USMC has done many studies of distributed operations and throughout the analyses it is clear that heavy lift is an essential piece of the ability to do such operations.”

And not just any heavy lift – but heavy lift built around a digital architecture.

Clearly, the CH-53E being more than 30 years old is not built in such a manner; but the CH-53K is.

What this means is that the CH-53K “can operate and fight on the digital battlefield.”

And because the flight crew are enabled by the digital systems onboard, they can focus on the mission rather than focusing primarily on the mechanics of flying the aircraft. This will be crucial as the Marines shift to using unmanned systems more broadly than they do now.

For example, it is clearly a conceivable future that CH-53Ks would be flying a heavy lift operation with unmanned “mules” accompanying them. Such manned-unmanned teaming requires a lot of digital capability and bandwidth, a capability built into the CH-53K.

If one envisages the operational environment in distributed terms, this means that various types of sea bases, ranging from large deck carriers to various types of Maritime Sealift Command ships, along with expeditionary bases, or FARPs or FOBS, will need to be connected into a combined combat force.

To establish expeditionary bases, it is crucial to be able to set them up, operate and to leave such a base rapidly or in an expeditionary manner (sorry for the pun).

This will be virtually impossible to do without heavy lift, and vertical heavy lift, specifically.

Put in other terms, the new strategic environment requires new operating concepts; and in those operating concepts, the CH-53K provides significant requisite capabilities.

And this Marine Corps-Navy capability is suggestive of a broader set of considerations for the Army and the Air Force.

If Expeditionary Basing is crucial, certainly the CH-53K could provide capabilities for the Army and the Air Force, to compliment fixed wing lift aircraft.

And in many cases, only a vertical lift support capability will be able to do the job.

Remember the USAF flies the CV-22s and if they are part of the distributed fight and requiring expeditionary basing, it may be the case that such a base can be set up and sustained only by vertical heavy lift.

Both considerations, how to cross-operate across the seabase and the expeditionary base, and the question of whether vertical heavy lift is now becoming a strategic asset, will be dealt with in later pieces. 

But for now, the core point is simple – the K needs to come into the USMC-Navy team as soon as possible to enable the shift in concepts of operations required to deal with the new strategic environment.

And if the CH-53K became part of the joint team, the question of cost is very manageable.

By producing more aircraft, the cost curve comes down. And shaping a more effective cost curve is a significant challenge which the program is addressing.

Colonel Jack D. Perrin is the United States Marine Corps, Program Manager, PMA-261, H-53 Heavy Lift Helicopters

Featured photo: USMC

For our archive of CH-53K stories, see the following: