The IDF Chooses the CH-53K: Building Block for Manned-Unmanned Operational Future


By Robbin Laird

The IDF recently selected the CH-53K to replace its legacy heavy lift assets, namely, the CH-53D.  It is clear that the IDF is buying the CH-53K for many of the same reasons which USMC is doing so but the IDF has been especially focused on three key reasons for doing so.

I addressed earlier, two key reasons the IDF is doing so, namely, the benefits of the aircraft for more effective reserve force and the advantages of ongoing modernization of the aircraft to deal with an uncertain strategic environment.

A third reason is the focus of this article. The Israelis have been leaders in unmanned air systems for more than three decades. Their use which predated the conflict in 1982 in Lebanon but became very visible in that campaign. Their efforts in the unmanned area have only grown since then, and any acquisition of new manned piloted aircraft going forward will be bought with a manned-unmanned teaming future in mind.

This is the case with regard to the CH-53K and its fly by wire capabilities built into the aircraft. What the fly-by-wire system allows the pilot to do is to focus on the mission rather than focusing almost exclusively on flying the aircraft. In earlier discussions with CH-53K operators, the key role which the new automated systems onboard the CH-53K provide for the aircraft have been highlighted as transforming how to be able to execute their missions more effectively.

Col. Perrin, Program Manager, PMA-261 CH53 Heavy Lift Helicopters, U.S. Naval Air Systems Command at Pax River Naval Air Station, focused significantly in his presentation on what the only new heavy lift helicopter for the joint force would bring to that force. “I would tell you the 53K is what I would call the 5th generation or the leading generation of heavy lift helicopters for all helicopters. It is fly by wire it has the power and speed that you really need in a helicopter and really executes its mission extremely well.”

He put a key point very well which pilots of the CH-53K have emphasized: “The pilots can put the aircraft where they need to in the combat environment.” This is about the ability to work in degraded environments and with the fly by wire and other digital systems are able to put that aircraft exactly where the optimal location in the combat environment.

When I met with Lt. Col. Frank of VMX-1, the officer in charge of the CH-53K Operational Test Detachment, he underscored the importance of this capability to the warfighter. “I’ve started in the Ch-53D in 2004, they’re my first love. I’ll always love them. They were much harder to fly. And the ease of flying this, the flight control system is probably the biggest game changer for the CH-53 community. We’re not used to anything like this. It’s very intuitive. It can be as hands off as you know, a brand-new Tesla, you can close your eyes, set the autopilot and fly across country.

“Obviously, you wouldn’t do that in a tactical environment, but it does reduce your workload, reduces your stress. And in precision hover areas, whether it’s night under low light conditions, under NVGs, in the confines of a tight landing zone, we have the ability to hit position hold in the CH-53K and have the aircraft maintain pretty much within one foot of its intended hover point, one foot forward, lateral and AFT, and then one foot of vertical elevation change.

“It will maintain that hover until the end of the time if required. that’s very, very stress relieving for us when landing in degraded visual environments. Our goal at VMX-1 is to create tactics that employ that system effectively.

“Some communities struggle with how they use the automation, do they let the automation do everything? Do they let the pilots do everything? How to work the balance? We’re working on a hybrid where the pilots can most effectively leverage automation.

“If you know you’re coming into a brownout situation or degraded visual environment, you engage the automation at a point right before the dust envelops you. And then in the CH53K, you can continue flying with the automation engaged. You continue flying with the automation engaged, and you can override it, but as soon as you stop moving the controls, it will take your inputs, estimate what you wanted and keep the aircraft in its position.

“It’s a very intuitive flight control system, and it blends very well with the pilot and the computers. It allows you to override the computer. And then the second that you stop overriding it, the computer takes back over without any further pilot input. That’s probably the biggest game changer for our community.”

But what this also means is that the ability to handle the pilot workload more effectively as a manned mission, means that the fly by wire system enables future operations where the CH-53K can work with airborne autonomous systems as well. In an interesting thesis written by Lt. Jinan M. Andres for the Air Force Institute of Technology, the author highlights the importance for managing pilot workload as manned-unmanned teaming becomes part of the pilot’s airborne mission portfolio. This ability rests in part on the manned asset having the capability built in to provide for effective pilot workload management, of the sort that the CH-53K is built to provide going forward.[1]

For the IDF, unmanned systems have been growing parts of their force over the past three decades. It is very clear that new ways to work airborne manned systems with a variety of autonomous systems either airborne or at sea is a key part of the way ahead.[2] For the IDF, buying a fly by wire heavy lift aircraft opens the aperture on an insertion force to build mass and effectiveness by having loyal wingman as part of its future.

In a visit to Pax River last year, I had a chance to discuss such a future with Col. Perrin. “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.”

Enabling a manned-unmanned teaming capability for the heavy lift force is clearly an important factor in the IDF decision to buy into the future, rather than simply to maintain how they do what they do now.



Also, see the following:

Israel and the CH-53K Decision: Re-Baselining Heavy Lift Helicopters for Strategic Uncertainty

Israel and the CH-53K: The Reserves and Training Dimension for Force Generation