(Dan Parsons)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — As the Marine Corps prepares to award a contract for the first lot of Sikorsky [LMT] CH-53K King Stallions, the military service said on May 6 that it is sticking with the program and working with the company to fix identified deficiencies.

Asked at the Navy League’s annual Sea-Air-Space symposium how the CH-53K program would evolve and whether the Marine Corps had a back-up heavy lift alternative to the CH-53K, a top Marine Corps official said that the Marine Corps’ “confidence level on it [the CH-53K] is high.”

“The deficiencies being identified are not unlike other deficiencies we’ve had in other programs,” Marine Corps Deputy Commandant for Aviation Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder told the Sea-Air-Space symposium.

Compared to the Boeing [BA] CH-47 heavy lift Chinook employed by the Army and other possible heavy lift options, the marinized CH-53K is “the only aircraft that can do what we ask it to do,” he said, including distributed operations and moving supplies quickly from ship to shore.

Replacing aging heavy lift helicopters is also an issue in other countries, such as Israel, where the Israeli Air Force (IAF) is considering 20 CH-47Fs or CH-53Ks to replace the IAF’s CH-53 “Yasur” helicopters, which are to leave service in 2025.

In April, U.S. Navy Acquisition Chief James Geurts said negotiations on the CH-53K between the Marines and Sikorsky — owned by Lockheed Martin — are in the “final stages.”

During ongoing flight test, the Marine Corps found multiple design deficiencies, including a re-ingestion of exhaust into the helicopter’s three engines. The shortcomings have delayed operational testing and pushed entry to service back to at least 2021. Many of those problems have been fixed and Sikorsky is on the hook for fixing them before deliveries begin on production-representative aircraft, Geurts told Congress in recent testimony.

Sikorsky has corrected most of the design flaws, or there is a plan in place to correct them before production deliveries begin, said Geurts, who restructured the program after taking over as Navy acquisition chief in December, 2017.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said he recently met with Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller and that Neller had raised “concerns” about the CH-53K.

“Do its capabilities justify its premium price over, say, the CH-47?” Hawley asked 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 has said that the CH-53K is unique, that there is “no other helicopter in the world that has lifted 36,00 pounds” with the capability to travel “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 maximum 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.

At the Sea-Air-Space symposium on May 6, another top Marine Corps official said that the service has received about half the funding it needs to cover a $158 million cost overrun in the CH-53K development program.

In fiscal 2019, the Marine Corps applied to reprogram that funding toward the 53K after the program experienced “discoveries during testing, last summer in particular,” said Marine Maj. Gen. Greg Masiello, program executive officer air ASW, assault and special mission programs at Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR).

“We are addressing those technical issues that we’ve got to resolved,” he said. “That’s adjusted some of our timeline.”

The programming is authorized and about half — $79 million — was received on April 19, Masiello said. That amount has been applied to the contract held by Sikorsky. The other half is expected in July, which will “allow them to continue with the execution of the program,” Masiello said.