NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.–Germany is taking initial steps toward replacing its fleet of Sikorsky [LMT] CH-53G heavy lift aircraft, according to a company official.

Sikorsky Vice President for CH-53K Mike Torok told reporters May 16 at the Sea-Air-Space conference the company is “certainly” engaged in discussions with Germany, which is looking to replace about 40-to-60 aircraft. Torok said Sikorsky is anticipating additional info from Germany in 2016, with a possible request for proposals (RFP) in 2017, but he said an official schedule has not been announced.

Marine Corps CH-53K Program Manager (PMA-261) Col. Henry Vanderborght told reporters the service has received a letter of request for pricing and availability from Germany for 41 CH-53Ks and it is in the process of responding. He didn’t say whether Germany was interested in specifically replacing its CH-53G fleet with CH-53Ks or if this was initial outreach before a possible competition. Requests for comment to the Navy were not returned by press time May 16.

While Sikorsky is preparing its assembly line to accommodate the Marine Corps’ future low-rate initial production (LRIP) order, Torok said the company is also arranging to support a potential German order for CH-53K. Sikorsky, Torok said, is ready to produce the Marine Corps’ program of record of 200 aircraft, but is also queuing up to do an extra 100 aircraft in case the Germans want the CH-53K.

Sikorsky spokeswoman Erin Cox said May 16 the company expects a decision by the end of 2016 on a location for CH-53K production and assembly. Consideration of both Marine Corps and potential international volume, including Germany, she said, are being accommodated in Sikorsky’s planning.

The Marine Corps’ CH-53K program has a Milestone C decision slated for second quarter fiscal year 2017. This is where the Marine Corps will decide whether to buy initial production units of the aircraft. If it decides to move forward, Sikorsky will produce an initial LRIP lot of two aircraft starting in FY ’20, followed by LRIP lots of four, seven and 13 helicopters. Both an initial operational capability (IOC) declaration and full rate production (FRP) are expected for the first half of FY ’20, according to a briefing slide.

Torok said Sikorsky has always expected international CH-53K interest to gather momentum once the program started flying. He said the company has had initial conversations with other international customers including others who aren’t traditional CH-53 operators. Torok said potential customers are interested in CH-53K because they, like the United States, are facing weight issues due to heavier equipment and their basic aircraft have run out of capability, especially in very hot conditions.

As it has not had its Milestone C review yet, the CH-53K program is still in the engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase. Torok said the program has “pivoted” to a production environment as the first four aircraft (of the 200 program of record) are on final assembly at the company’s West Palm Beach, Fla., facility. He said the next four aircraft, five through eight, are on long lead funding.

Sikorsky, Torok said, has four aircraft at the end of the flight test program. Two have flown and the other two will fly shortly. Torok said the program has taken a test aircraft to up to 140 knots and has expanded the margin going rearward and sideways.

The program in October also picked up its first external load of 12,000 pounds and carried it at a speed of 80 knots, Torok said. Sikorsky in 2016 will have its two initial operational flight tests, Torok said: one to lift a 27,000-pound load and another to take a 12,000 pound load and carry it 110 nautical miles. Sikorsky will also then carry 20,000 and 27,000 pound external payloads, according to a company statement. Torok said the program originally planned to start doing external loading in June but it was accomplished in April.

Sikorsky believes the CH-53K will become the world’s premier heavy lift helicopter, leveraging lessons from its legacy CH-53A/D/E predecessors. The aircraft will be fully shipboard compatible and capable of operating from austere and remote forward operating bases. Sikorsky is a Lockheed Martin company.