The Marines’ next Super Stallion
The Marines’ next heavy lift helicopter wasn’t designed to be low observable, but it sure has been a stealthy program compared to the rest of their high-profile acquisition portfolio.
In case you were wondering, Sikorsky officials tell AvWeek superstar Amy Butler that everything is proceeding apace with the CH-53K Super Stallion, which will one day become the Marine Corps’ next hulking, thundering, steam locomotive of the sky. The K looks a lot like today’s CH-53E model, but it’s a planned as a whole new helicopter, and doubling the previous helo’s carrying capability was apparently not an easy goal.
The technical hurdles in developing a new rotorcraft in the same footprint as the CH-53E it replaces, while more than doubling its load, appear to have been retired, says Col. Robert Pridgen, the Marines’ CH-53K program manager. “There is nothing in front of us that is going to slow me down,” he tells Aviation Week. He acknowledges that flight-testing discoveries are possible. One of the main challenges—developing a new split-torque gearbox—has already been overcome, and “that was no small mountain to climb,” he declares. With this design, three GE38-1B engines separately feed into the gearbox, allowing for a lighter design than the helicopter’s predecessor, says Dave Zack, Sikorsky’s CH-53K program manager.
Background, per Butler:
Sikorsky won the $3 billion CH-53K development contract in April 2006 after submitting an unsolicited proposal; the Marine Corps was looking at options to upgrade its heavy-lift fleet, [which] comprised CH-53D and E models. Technology maturation early in the program for the main rotor blades and gearbox was critical, as both were at a technology readiness level of 4 instead of 6, which is typically when the Pentagon moves forward with a design.
Sikorsky’s development contract stands out among many Pentagon aircraft deals in that it is a cost-plus, incentive-fee arrangement. This means the Pentagon pays the cost of the work rather than capping the price—a strategy adopted to accommodate the immature technology early in the program. The Pentagon estimates it will cost $25.7 billion to buy 200 CH-53Ks. The figure includes roughly $6.8 billion in growth due largely to a quantity increase; the Marines originally expected to buy 156 rotorcraft.
Cost-plus was de rigueur in the acquisitions game, but years of punishing headlines about cost and schedule problems have made fixed-price deals more popular. The Marines even changed their arrangement on this program, Butler writes, to try to speed it along and guarantee they could being fielding new aircraft close to their onetime hopes:
The first four production CH-53Ks, dubbed system demonstration test articles, will be built at the West Palm Beach facility and will be used for the Marine Corps’ operational evaluation. These articles, as well as manuals and spares, will also be needed to declare initial operational capability in 2018. The company has not yet announced where full-rate production will take place, but a new facility in Florida is being sized to handle the K.
As with all current military programs, affordability is essential. Zack says Sikorsky is exploring ways to reduce the price of both testing and production. The Marines renegotiated the Sikorsky development contract last year; it originally included an award-fee schedule. The shift to an incentive-fee plan is spurring the company to deliver as much as six months early on key milestones, an achievable task, says Zack. “We wanted to incentivize them to meet some cost targets and some schedule targets,” says Pridgen. First flight is slated for the first quarter of 2014 based on the accelerated plan.
The last new rotorcraft the Marine Corps developed — the MV-22 Osprey — did not have a smooth and simple entry into the fleet. The Army has delayed building the all-new rotorcraft it yearns for until 2030. If the Corps can start fielding a fleet of all-new Ks just a dozen years after it began the initial work, that would be quite something in the context of helo-building.