The U.S. Marine Corps is putting its CH-53Ds under a heavy upgrade program following a decision to retain the heavy lift helicopters until they can be replaced by the future CH-53K. This overrides the initial decision to replace the 30 D models left in the fleet with the VM-22 Ospreys now being deployed.
The 53Ds, based in Hawaii, have been deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan “because they are still able to take care of their mission and do an extremely good job of it,” according to USMC Major Jack Perrin, H-53 platform coordinator. Once the 53K is on line, the Corps will mothball the D models, convert those squadrons to 53K squadrons and expand the 53K program to include the squadrons that they were going to make V-22 squadrons.
One upgrade is the improved rotor blade for the D model. In the past four years, the D model blades have started becoming obsolete “and there are no more blades to be remanufactured or reworked,” Perrin said. So the Marines are now re-qualifying the blades developed for the CH-53E for the D model. The Corps is also qualifying the GE T64-GE-416 engine for the CH-53D, “which gives it a tremendous increased in high/hot performance for places like Afghanistan. You get greater T-5 (power turbine inlet temperature) out of the engine so you get increased power at altitude and in the worst ambient conditions.” The D model currently uses the T64-GE-413 engine.
The Corps CH-53Es are also getting an upgraded engine, from the T64-GE-416 to the -419, currently used on the U.S. Navy’s MH-53Es. Other upgrades for the both the CH-53D and 53E models include integration of a Blue Force Tracking System, “which is a combination of a system started by the Army called FBCB2 (Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below),” Perrin said.
The new system will provide greater communications capabilities and allow aircraft commanders to identify troops on the ground. If it is friendly forces, the commander can text messages to them over the horizon, either forward to units they are supporting or back to headquarters behind them. Enemy forces can be plotted by the system “so that everyone will know that someone spotted the enemy at that place. The S-2 can put that into the system so that both Marine Corps and Army air and ground units can work on it,” Perrin said.
Part of the new system is an electronic data module (EDM) with a moving map display. This will be integrated into the glass cockpit of the CH-53K. However, the D and E models have the old steam gauge cockpit, so the EDM is in a kneeboard. “This is how the pilots can send text messages, read text messages, communicate, know where they are and other forces are, where the Red Forces are. They’ll be flying along and see headlights on a road, and (with this system) know whether it’s a friendly Marine or Army unit or not.”
The Blue Force Tracking started going into the CH-53s in 2007. By January 2009, all the CH-53D models in Iraq were equipped with it and over half of the E models. The 53Es weren’t installed as fast because they were piggy-backing the installation with the installation of the DIRCM (directed IR countermeasures) system, a laser designed to defeat IR-guided missiles. The CH-53E is also getting integrated maintenance diagnostic systems (IMDS), which will allow condition-based maintenance. The preliminary design review for the CH-53K has now been completed, with the aircraft going into its critical design review. The K model will be fly-by-wire with a side-controller, a digital “glass” cockpit and FADEC controlled engines. It will be powered by new General Electric GE38-1B engines, allowing a maximum takeoff weight of 88,000 lbs with external loads, compared to the 73,500 lbs for the CH-53E. Maximum weight with internal loads will be 74,000 lbs compared to 69,750 lbs for the E model. Payload will be tripled to 27,000 lbs transported over 110 nautical miles under hot/high conditions.