The Marine Corps is just weeks away from awarding a contract for the first lot of CH-53K King Stallions, but Sikorsky will have to fix problems found during test before production can begin.
Navy Acquisition Chief James Geurts said negotiations between the Marines and Sikorsky — owned by Lockheed Martin [LMT] — are in the “final stages.”
“I would expect that in the next coming weeks,” he told the U.S. Senate Armed Services subcommittee on seapower April 10. “There are some things need to be fixed and I want them fixed in the production aircraft when they roll off.”
Development of the single-rotor heavylift helicopter has been beset by delays caused by broken components and other deficiencies found during the ongoing flight test program. The test program also has progressed through the “hard points,” where most deficiencies are most likely to be found, Geurts said.
Most of the design flaws have been corrected or there is a plan in place to correct them, he added. That was exactly his goal in restructuring the program once he took over Navy acquisition in December 2017.
“When I came on board … that was a program, as I looked at it, that was not where it needed to be,” he said. “We were not achieving the test point that we needed to at the rate we needed to and we didn’t have a real plan to deal with fixes we needed to make in the production aircraft as we discovered them in test. It was not anybody’s individual fault, just the way we set the strategy wasn’t working for us.”
Geurts paused the program and withheld a production contract to take a magnifying glass to the program’s structure and refocus the test program on achieving capabilities for the Marine Corps, he said.
“It’s an incredibly important helicopter,” he said. “My job is to deliver it with confidence.”
In renegotiating a contract for the first lot of production aircraft, the Navy ensured Lockheed Martin would incorporate “known fixes” before delivery as opposed to retrofitting them after the service took ownership, Geurts said. The company also must include “some capacity to deal with those problems as we discover them in future so we can reduce the concurrency risk, which what was really what was bothering us,” he said.
Geurts was responding to a question from Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who said he sat down with Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller in recent weeks. During that meeting Neller raised “concerns” about the CH-53K.
“Do its capabilities justify its premium price over, say, the CH-47?” Hawley later asked Marine Deputy Commandant for Aviation Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder. “To be honest with you, I was disturbed by Gen. Neller’s comments. He expressed pretty significant frustration to me about the status of this program.”
Rudder came to a full-throated defense of the aircraft and the capabilities it will deliver by replacing the Ch-53E Super Stallion.
“As we step back and we look at this program, as a heavylift helicopter, it’s the only one that this nation has that can do what it can do,” Rudder said. “There is no other helicopter in the world that has lifted 36,00 pounds … 100 miles ship-to-shore with 27,000 pounds … and go back and forth all day long.”
A CH-47F Chinook has a combat radius of about 200 nautical miles, a max takeoff weight of 50,000 pounds and a useful load capacity of 24,000 pounds. It also isn’t designed to operate from or fit inside a ship, a major Marine Corps requirement.
Sikorsky has 20 aircraft in production as of April 3 and has flown nearly 1,500 hours of its planned flight test regime. Deficiencies found during testing range from seat cushion design and handholds to engine gas reingestion, Rudder said. Test aircraft have flown faster than 170 kts, up to 18,000 feet and at greater than 60 degree bank, according to Sikorsky.
“The vendor and the program office are going to fix these,” Rudder said. “And we’re going to hold them accountable to fix it.”
Correction: This article originally misstated the number of flight test hours the CH-53K has logged. It has flown nearly 1,500 hours.