U.S. Marines could buy fewer CH-53K helicopters to control cost

Avatar for Dan ParsonsBy Dan Parsons | July 8, 2021

Estimated reading time 5 minutes, 25 seconds.

To tamp down the ultimate cost of buying the massive Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallion, the U.S. Marine Corps is considering a fleet of less than the planned 200 helicopters, according to the service’s top aviator. 

A single CH-53K, the largest single-rotor helicopter in U.S. military history, ran just under $100 million in the last lot the Marine Corps purchased. That’s about on par with a Lockheed Martin F-35B fighter jet, Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Missouri, pointed out during a June 30 hearing of the House Armed Services subcommittee on tactical air and land forces. 

Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallions. Lockheed Martin Photo

Marine Corps Deputy Commandant for Aviation Lt. Gen. Mark Wise answered that the program of record already has been scaled back from 220 aircraft to 200 and could drop even further, though the reduction likely would come from the final production lots. 

“It is possible, absolutely, it just won’t be as low as you might think if you did the straight math for it, because of the requirement being 220 initially,” Wise said. “It could go below 200 and it may, but I’m not sure it’s going to go grossly below.” 

“As we look at force design and how that will affect that program, if there is a reduction it will probably be less than we would normally think had we actually bought the program of record that was the requirement to begin with,” Wise added. “As we get to determining what that number is, any reduction would not happen until the end of the program buy. So that would, working with industry, reduce the likelihood that cost would rise, depending on the last lot buys.”

In December 2005, the entire program was initially estimated to cost $70.8 billion in then-year dollars. Once the program reached production in 2017, that estimate rose to $109 billion, according to a March 2021 Government Accountability Office report on the CH-53K. The latest program estimate, calculated in 2019, is $115.5 billion for 2oo aircraft.

Sikorsky and the Marine Corps recently finalized a deal for the fifth lot of aircraft for $878.7 million, bringing the per-unit cost of the nine helicopters to $97.6 million. That contract also carried an option for nine more aircraft in a sixth lot worth $852.5 million, further reducing the per-copy price tag to $94.7 million.

Wise plugged those numbers at the hearing, saying the Marine Corps is committed to reducing the per-copy cost of the CH-53K.

“We’ve attacked that in two directions,” Wise said. “One is trying to drive down the unit cost, which is worthy of discussion. The unit cost of Lot 5, which was this year, is $97 million per copy. Where we are going in ’22, it appears it’s going to be about $94 [million]. So, it is on its way down and it is below the cost of an F-35 and trending in the right direction.”

Wise said the decision to buy 20 fewer helicopters was a response to the seven-year schedule delay and cost overruns associated with developmental challenges. Those cuts were made to “meet affordability” after mounting developmental issues that included a faulty main gearbox, engine exhaust reingestion and other problems found during flight test that have since been solved, he said. 

“Right now, we’ve really had great success in getting through those challenges,” Wise said. “Like engine gas reingestion . . . we’re actually past that now. So, as we get ready to start into IOT&E — we’re actually starting next month — we’re seeing some fairly impressive readiness rates for the test birds that are going to be doing that operational test. There are some good news stories as we have done the risk reduction initiatives and helped driven down cost for procurement.” 

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