During a visit to Pax River in January 2020, there was a chance 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.
One of the issues which we discussed was how the CH-53K was providing 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
For the complete interview with Col. Perrin, see the following:
For our archive of CH-53K stories, see the following:
In the video below, two CH-53K King Stallion aircraft are preparing for and engaged in a formation flight test at NAS Patuxent River, MD, on 9 Jan 2020.
The credit for the video:
Video by Victoria Falcon
Naval Air Station Patuxent River