Despite more than a few hurdles along the way, the CH-53K King Stallion is now moving closer to meaningful operational service with the U.S. Marine Corps. Now that the heavy-lift helicopter has been loaded with Marines, we have a much better chance to compare some of the really tangible improvements it offers over its predecessor, the CH-53E Super Stallion, which entered service back in 1981, from the perspective of those who will ride aboard it.
The photos in question were recently published by the U.S. Department of Defense and show Marines from 1st Battalion, 2d Marine Regiment, preparing to board and then in the cabin of a CH-53K at Marine Corps Outlying Field Atlantic, North Carolina, on October 20. The helicopter was assigned to Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron One, or VMX-1, which is charged with ensuring the King Stallion is ready for service and able to undertake all the missions asked of it.
In the meantime, VMX-1 has flown a first official fleet mission, too, completing the real-world retrieval of a U.S. Navy MH-60S Seahawk helicopter after a hard landing on a mountain ridge, last month, as you can read about here.
The CH-53K will replace the CH-53E, and its job with the Marines will include moving heavy equipment and supplies from ship-to-shore in support of amphibious assault and subsequent operations ashore, as well as lifting troops, as we can see being evaluated during the trials in North Carolina.
Overlooked by two crew chiefs, at least 26 Marines can be counted seated in the hold of the CH-53K, in two rows of 13, with their equipment stowed along the floor between them. The troops are fully equipped with loaded packs as well as individual weapons: almost all carry M4 carbines, together with the odd M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle, M32 grenade launcher, and M72 Light Anti-tank Weapon, or LAW.
What we can see here is almost a full load of Marines for the CH-53K — bearing in mind the crop of the photo, it may well be that the helicopter had a full load of 30 troops, plus the two crew chiefs, not forgetting the two pilots up front.
The interior of the VMX-1 helicopter at Marine Corps Outlying Field Atlantic also seems to be better appointed than other CH-53Ks we have seen, however, with an apparent cabin cladding kit installed. The photo below seems to show the ‘Kilo’s’ interior without the cladding.
Regardless of the details of the interior finish, compare the CH-53K loaded with Marines with a similar view of a legacy CH-53E, and you’ll get a sense of how much more fresh and uncluttered the CH-53K’s cabin is. Sikorsky took decades of lessons learned from operating the Super Stallions to inform the King Stallion’s design, including how the helicopter interfaced with its cargo and passengers.
Like the CH-53K, the CH-53E can actually carry more people, if need be. It too has normal seating for 30 passengers, but it can hold as many as 55 passengers with centerline seats installed. In that case, room for gear is almost nonexistent.
However, the CH-53E cabin is a bit more cramped, even with the same number of Marines on board. That’s mainly the result of the CH-53K having a cabin that’s a full 12 inches wider, while the chaos of internal plumbing, ducting, and cables so evident in the CH-53E is neatly organized or entirely concealed in the Kilo.
That extra-wide cabin means the CH-53K can accommodate full Transcom 463C cargo pallets and vehicles as large as the HMMMV internally. As an alternative, like the CH-53E, it can also be configured to move 24 litter patients or a Tactical Bulk Fuel Delivery System (TBFDS) to distribute fuel on the ground.
While the inside of the CH-53K amply reflects the fact that the helicopter is basically a new design informed by its predecessor — at least compared to the CH-53E that was evolved from the earlier CH-53D — its load-carrying attributes don’t finish here. Thanks to three General Electric GE38-1B turboshaft engines developing 57 percent more horsepower than the CH-53E, the CH-53K will also carry significantly heavier loads externally and move them farther.
While Lockheed Martin has boasted that the CH-53K can carry three times the load of a CH-53E, that’s based on the maximum vertical lift, so it doesn’t necessarily translate across the operating envelope. More meaningfully, the CH-53K is designed to carry up to 27,000 pounds externally over a distance of 110 nautical miles in a hot and high environment, compared to 9,654 pounds over the same distance for the CH-53E.
However, the ability of the Kilo to reach its considerable potential has been continually challenged since an example was delivered to the Marines in May 2018. This has included a ruling that prohibited the helicopter from flying in dust clouds or so-called brownout conditions, due to concerns about engine performance in these circumstances. The last Director Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) report contained the stark warning: “CH-53K aircrew cannot realistically perform external cargo delivery operations.” You can read all about this issue in this previous article.
Prior to that, there were problems with the engine and gearbox, both of which were solved in fairly short order. There have also been issues involving ingestion of exhaust gasses into the engines, deficiencies with the main drive shaft and tail rotor assemblies, and main rotor gearboxes that were prone to failure.
The latest Marine Aviation Plan, dated 2019, does not expect initial operational capability (IOC) until fiscal year 2024. At one point, it had been slated for 2015.
Costs have meanwhile mounted, with the Pentagon 2021 fiscal year budget request outlining a unit cost of around $125 million. There have been concerns that this could affect the plan to ultimately acquire 220 of these helicopters.
There has been good news, however, including a first export order, when Israel approved the purchase of the CH-53K in February this year.
All in all, the CH-53K promises to overhaul the capabilities of the Marine Heavy Helicopter community, but the modernization has been a long time in the works, and the costs involved are eye-watering. Nevertheless, the CH-53K is a critical capability that was needed yesterday — and it looks like its fielding is finally on the horizon.