New CH-53K Helicopter for Marines Costs a King Stallion’s Ransom

The United States Marine Corps wants to deploy a new CH-53KKing Stallion heavy-lift helicopter, but do its “capabilities justify its premium price over, say, the CH-47,” Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley has wondered.  Described by Popular Mechanics in 2017 as “phenomenally expensive,” the CH-53K program is becoming more controversial as Marines continue to fight in non-amphibious environments like Afghanistan.

The Marines want to buy 200 CH-53Ks for $31 billion, or $138.5 million a copy, a price that already increased from $131.2 million merely in the year 2016-2017.  By comparison, the Marines’ F-35B variant of the Joint Strike Fighter costs $122.8 million each.  Developed since 2006, the CH-53Ks were supposed to begin operational service in 2015, a date now delayed until sometime in 2023–2024.

CH-53K King Stallion (Photo credit: US Marine Corps)

The CH-53 helicopter series dates to its introduction with the Marines in 1966, and the Marines’ current CH-53E Super Stallion, which in 1977 cost $61 million in 2017 dollars, appeared in 1974.  The new CH-53K is among the most powerful heavy-lift helicopters globally, three times more powerful than the CH-53E.  The King Stallion, 99 feet long and 44 tons fully loaded, will be America’s largest and heaviest helicopter.

The Marines and the CH-53K’s producer, Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky Helicopter Corporation, argue that only the CH-53K satisfies Marine requirements.  These include the need to carry up to 36,000 pounds total payload and 27,000 pounds over a 100-mile operational radius.  These criteria are essential for the Marines’ Pacific strategy, in which forces will deploy over vast distances on islands or barge-like bases.

Yet Marine Corps Commandant General Robert Neller “disturbed” Hawley during 2019 conversations over the CH-53K.  Neller “expressed pretty significant frustration” to Hawley about the CH-53K, concerns that prompted the Department of Defense (DoD) to begin a review of the CH-53K in 2019.  As authorized by the Senate under Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), the Pentagon will consider the option of the Marines purchasing a mix of CH-53Ks and CH-47 Chinooks, another heavy-lift helicopter that originally began service in the United States Army in 1962.

The Boeing Corporation is offering a new version of the Chinook.  This CH-47F can carry around 21,000 pounds.  Currently 20 countries, including eight of America’s NATO allies, operate the combat-tested CH-47. 

Boeing spokespersons have touted the CH-47F’s refinement of the Chinook’s known reliability.  By contrast, the four currently existing test CH-53Ks with a largely new design have no such operational record, making maintainability unproven.  Moreover, average annual CH-47F costs per flight hour of $10,600 compare with nearly $42,000 for the CH-53K. 

Such cost and safety issues loom large given that the CH-53E Super Stallion currently has the Marine Corps’ worst aircraft readiness problems.  As Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Mark Thompson at the Project on Government Oversight wrote in 2018, the CH-53E and “its near-identical twin,” the United States Navy’s MH-53E Sea Dragon minesweeper, have a “terrible safety record.”  After 132 operational accident deaths in these helicopters, the Marines are “simply replacing their CH-53Es with beefier CH-53Ks, and hoping history doesn’t repeat itself.”

Thompson has criticized as well the CH-53K program’s focus on amphibious operations, the Marine Corps traditional raison d’être.  The Marines have a “relentless push to remain relevant and keep the hopes of a glorious replay of an amphibious assault alive,” an “antiquated, all-but-obsolete mission.”  While America’s last beach assault occurred in 1950 at Inchon during the Korean War, since Al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 attacks, the “Marines fought far from any shoreline in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Particularly in Afghanistan, the Chinook has become a “workhorse” in the words of the technology website The Drive.  “No other helicopter can replicate its unique capabilities -- not even close,” in Afghanistan’s often hot, high mountains.  In particular, the Chinook is DoD’s fastest helicopter.

Marine use of the Chinook makes sense given that the Marines operated a similar Boeing helicopter, the CH-46 Sea Knight, which served from 1964 until as recently as its 2015 retirement.  As The Drive has noted, “untrained eyes often confuse the CH-46 with the CH-47,” a “far more powerful helicopter.”  Such experience should qualify objections that the CH-47F would require special modifications to serve in a maritime environment and that the Marines operate separate support systems for another helicopter alongside the CH-53K.

The Marines’ multifaceted missions from Afghanistan’s high hills to the Pacific Ocean argue against sole reliance on a future CH-53K helicopter.  Just as the United States Air Force cannot depend only on advanced stealth aircraft, the Marine Corps should not place all its eggs in a costly, untried King Stallion basket.  As with other areas in life, among helicopters there is strength in diversity.