The U.S. Marine Corps/Sikorsky CH-53K is arguably the first serious attempt by the United States to open up the defense cooperation that NATO has been seeking for decades.
The U.S. Marine Corps’ CH-53K program is unique in that, for the first time, it is actively seeking European partners to share the burden and contribute technology, instead of going it alone on the strength of its domestic market. As such, it is arguably the first serious attempt by the United States to open up the two-way street in defense cooperation that NATO has been seeking for decades, and that the US101 barely scratched.
It is far from clear, despite this auspicious beginning, that it will finally live up to its trans-Atlantic promise.
The CH-53K was launched earlier this year, with Sikorsky managing the industry side of the program, because of the Marines’ urgent requirement to expand heavy-lift capability, which is struggling to support ongoing operations in Southwest Asia, and to provide a maintenance-friendly and affordable successor to the current fleet of CH-53Ds, CH-53Es and MH-53s.
"The H-53 fleet is extraordinarily stressed," said Col. Paul Croisetiere, the Marine CH-53K program manager, and "we are looking at an aircraft that will be as affordable to operate as a commercial helicopter."
Coincidentally, France and Germany in February issued a request for information for a Heavy Transport Helicopter (HTH) that would both replace the German army’s CH-53Gs and provide the French army with a capability it does not have. "But the French-German market is very small, with 60 to 120 aircraft, which hardly makes a business case for a new helicopter," said Jens Stoetzer, Eurocopter vice president for HTH programs.
Cooperation appears attractive because both companies could pool their expertise. Eurocopter would contribute its know-how of large composite structures acquired on the Tiger and NH90 programs, and Sikorsky would contribute its expertise in the field of large transmissions and dynamics that the French-German company requires to develop its HTH proposal.
Entering the heavy-lift helicopter market is a major strategy shift for Eurocopter, which has long maintained it was too small a niche to bother with. However, given Germany’s need to replace its CH-53s, France’s new-found interest and the looming market to replace existing fleets of CH-47s in service, the company now believes the potential market for an HTH would exceed 250 aircraft in the 2020-2030 time-frame.
This makes it an attractive market, especially since profit margins would prove fatter than in Eurocopter’s traditional market segments. "There is a considerable market out there that is asking for a new helicopter," said Stoetzer, adding that for various reasons not all customers would again buy from the United States.
Eurocopter and Sikorsky have been talking cooperation since early 2005, and have made sufficient progress to make the signature of a teaming arrangement feasible by December, the deadline Sikorsky set to award all CH-53K subcontracts, said David Haines, its H-53 programs manager. Eurocopter’s Stoetzer noted, "Today, there is no exclusivity agreement with any manufacturer, and Eurocopter is open to all possibilities." Its response to the French-German RFI is due this month.
One obstacle to this scenario is that neither France nor Germany has yet earmarked any serious money for HTH. To date, Germany has secured funding only for a limited service-life extension program for 40 of its CH-53Gs, while funding for a more ambitious upgrade to another 40 aircraft (designated CH-53GA and intended for foreign deployment) will not begin wending its way through the parliament’s appropriations process before October.
Since "this will not be an industry-launched program," Stoetzer said, "we need a commitment to R&D funding by the governments, so we can reach technology maturity in time for a first flight in 2017."
Crucially, however, neither money nor a firm requirement exists on the French side and, according to French industry insiders, it is quite possible none will be forthcoming.
"The French army has been singed by the problems, delays and costs of its NH90 program, and there is a determination not to get involved in another development program," said one knowledgeable official. "The army would prefer to avoid similar problems–and a large hit to its budget–by procuring the CH-53K off the shelf after it is fully developed."
In the meantime, the official added, "the French staff is keeping a low profile because it doesn’t want to risk being asked to financially contribute to CH-53K development." Nor does it want a public fight with Eurocopter, which is counting on French defense ministry funding to help it finance the HTH and so enter a new market segment.
Another difficulty is that the CH-53K’s development program will have to reconcile two apparently conflicting goals: develop sufficient new technologies to make the aircraft perform an ambitious mission profile at an affordable cost while keeping developmental risk as low as possible to avoid delays and cost overruns.
On paper, the aircraft is a significant improvement over the CH-53E, offering double the lift (to 27,000 lb., or 12.2 metric tons) under Marine "hot-day conditions" to a distance of 110 nm. Also specified are a 20-kt. increase in speed and increased survivability, combined "with a 50-percent reduction in direct operating costs," and a two-thirds reduction in maintenance man-hours per flight hour.
The CH-53K also is intended to be able to carry 55 troops on crashworthy seats, or 24 litters, or a maximum external load of 36,000 lb. (16.4 metric tons) when lifting a light armored vehicle on the hook.
However impressive these figures are, the tentative specs for the French-German HTH go even further, with a range of 540 nm (1,000 km.), a cruise speed of about 160 kt. and an internal payload of 70 soldiers or a light armored vehicle, like the German Fennek, that implies a larger cabin than that of the CH-53K. Incidentally, Germany wants the HTH to fly in 2016, with an initial operating capability in 2018 and a full operational capability on 2020.
Although it will retain the H-53’s broad configuration, the -53K is envisioned as a totally new aircraft. In addition to the new composite airframe, it will feature three new, 6,000-shp engines; a new drive system with a split-torque main gear box; fly-by-wire controls; an elastomeric main rotor head; composite main rotor blades; advanced digital cockpit and various other new systems, such as integrated self-protection suite; integral cargo-handling system, and advanced forward-looking infrared sensors with helmet-mounted displays.
Sikorsky has launched several competitions to select suppliers for these new components, and Haines said most will be open to non-U.S. suppliers. Five companies are competing to supply the joint, interoperable modern cockpit (decision due by mid-June) and four to supply the new engines (decision by September); all sub-contracts are to be awarded by the end of 2006, to allow a tight schedule that calls for a first flight in early 2012 and an initial operational capability by December 2015.
Combining such a large number of new technologies and components in a single program will inevitably complicate development and increase the risk that the aircraft will enter production before it is sufficiently mature. For example, the program schedule calls for the first 29 low-rate initial production aircraft to be ordered before the technical evaluation is completed in December 2014–in other words, before the -53K has proved it can meet its design performance.
But the Marines’ Croisetiere said "We are going to a new helicopter based on proven technology, so the technology risk is not all that great. The worst case is that this might become a medium-risk, rather than a low-risk, program."
Haines also noted that the company "has gained direct experience with the S-92, where commercial operators can’t afford to have inoperable aircraft," and adds that its extensive knowledge of aircraft as large and complex as the H-53 will allow it to meet the program’s ambitious goals.
Given the number of new technologies and the tightness of the development schedule, that seems a very optimistic viewpoint, and all the more so if foreign suppliers are involved. In addition to Eurocopter’s possible role on the fuselage, Russia’s Mil will supply the split-torque main gearbox. Integrating these firms into the program will not simplify management issues.
It would be sadly ironic if, the one time in 60 years that a transatlantic helicopter program seemed feasible, it was to ultimately fail because of a European funding shortfall and an overly ambitious timescale.