It may look the same superficially, but Sikorsky's new CH-53K King Stallion represents a dramatic leap in capability compared with its predecessor, the CH-53E. The Marine Corps eagerly awaits the latest iteration of the CH-53 heavylifter, which is making steady progress towards service entry following earlier delays caused by technical issues, and with Sikorsky (Lockheed Martin Stand 1290) recently handing over the first production aircraft to the Marine Corps.
Despite still undergoing an intensive phase of trials, the CH-53K has even notched its first official fleet mission, when an aircraft recovered a downed MH-60S Knighthawk from Mount Hogue in California’s White Mountains. The MH-60S had suffered damage in a hard landing at around 12,000 feet elevation during a rescue operation in July, and there were no obvious means of recovering it without a major disassembly in difficult terrain. Following an exhaustive evaluation, a CH-53K was called in on September 5 to lift the 15,200-pound helicopter and transport it to the airfield at Bishop.
This first, unplanned, mission was undertaken by a King Stallion from the trials unit VMX-1, which had established a detachment at MCAS Twentynine Palms. The squadron is undertaking the crucial Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) for the CH-53K that will clear the aircraft for service. IOT&E has been underway since July, with four CH-53Ks assigned to VMX-1.
A few days later, on September 24, the CH-53K chalked up another milestone as the first production aircraft went to the Marine Corps in a ceremony at Sikorsky’s Stratford, Connecticut, plant. The state-of-the-art production line has another five CH-53Ks in build, with components being built for another 36. Schedules call for delivery of the second production aircraft early next year.
Initial deliveries will go to MCAS New River, North Carolina, where the Marine Corps will train crews on the “King," as well as support Fleet operations prior to the first operational deployment being undertaken in 2024. The Marines have a program of record for 200 CH-53Ks, with 33 currently on contract and long-lead items being ordered for a further nine.
Sikorsky has already delivered four Engineering Development Model prototype aircraft and a ground test vehicle, followed by four System Demonstration Test Aircraft. They have undertaken many significant capability demonstrations, including the carriage of the maximum 36,000-pound load, and the ability to refuel in flight while carrying a 27,000-pound underslung load. One of the key Marine requirements calls on it to carry that weight across a 110-nm radius. Sikorsky officially handed over the first trials aircraft to the Marines on May 16, 2018.
Sikorsky designed the CH-53K in answer to a Marine requirement for improved heavylift capability. A plan to upgrade the existing CH-53Es stalled and the new-build CH-53K was put forward instead. Despite its similar looks, the “King” is a major redesign, with a wider cabin to accommodate pallets, new rotor blades, and a host of new systems. The CH-53E’s three 4,380-shp General Electric T34 engines give way to the 7,500-shp GE38 (F406) engine. As a result, the King Stallion offers a dramatic improvement in performance, including a maximum load increase from 27,000 to 36,000 pounds. The “King” is faster by 20 knots, too.
While the Marines remains the primary customer, Sikorsky and parent company Lockheed Martin have hopes for the CH-53K on the export market and have conducted a number of international marketing campaigns. This first bore fruit in February this year, when Israel selected the CH-53K to replace its first-generation CH-53s in the face of competition from the West’s only other true heavylift helicopter, the Boeing CH-47 Chinook. It reportedly has drawn interest from Japan, and in South Korea, where a plan to upgrade CH-47s might be ditched in favor of buying new-build helicopters, opening the door for Sikorsky to compete.
Perhaps the strongest opportunity for the CH-53K remains Germany, where the government raised a Schwerer Transporthubschrauber (STH, heavy transport helicopter) requirement for 45 to 60 aircraft to replace the existing CH-53GM heavy lifters. Sikorsky teamed with Rheinmetall and other German companies to bid for the contract. However, in September 2020 the German government canceled the STH requirement on the grounds of cost, but noted that it would re-examine the project and that the need for a new heavylifter remains.