A Navy official on Monday said the service is reducing the cost of the CH-53K King Stallion heavy lift helicopter program as it contracts for nine more and also expects to declare Initial Operational Capability (IOC) by the fall.

Last Friday, the Navy awarded Lockheed Martin

’s [LMT] Sikorsky unit a $736 million contract to build nine Low Rate Initial Production Lot 5 CH-53Ks for the Marine Corps along with an option for nine more aircraft in a follow-up Lot 6 (Defense Daily, June 25).

With the Lot 5 award, the CH-53K program increases to 33 total helicopters delivered or on contract. The new helicopter is a redesign of the current CH-53E model, with new General Electric [GE] T408 engines that let it lift twice the lift capacity along with higher speeds and an improved internal layout.

In a press call Monday, Col. Jack Perrin, program manager of PMA-26, the heavy lift helicopter program, told reporters the average cost of the airframe is going down as the service purchases more aircraft. The Navy earlier purchased the CH-53K at an average cost of $104 million per unit in Lot 4 and has now gone down to $97.6 million per unit in this latest Lot 5 and plans to be driven down further to $94.7 million per unit in Lot 6. 

“So the team is doing a good job of driving the cost out of the program while still maintaining the requirements and getting the aircraft to the fleet,” Perrin said.

Perrin noted they have reduced costs by increasing volume and working with Sikorsky to lower costs or increase parts reliability. 

“Volume plays a huge dividend within industry to drive the cost out and so as we are ramping up, as you see we’ve gone from two aircraft in Lot 1 and now we’re at nine aircraft. I’m expecting when the FY ‘23 budget comes out that we will also see an increase there as the total number of aircraft you buy per year because that volume really helps drive your costs out,” he said.

Moreover, Perrin said “we’re also working with Sikorsky and Sikorsky is working with its sub-tier suppliers on finding out more efficient ways in order to build the different  parts for the aircraft. They still have to maintain the qualifications and the pedigree of that part, but we work very diligently in order to drive those costs out of that.”

“Not only for procurement, but also for the lifecycle of the aircraft, so, what we call those operational sustainment costs. We drive those costs out as well by getting efficiencies in how do you build it into the individual part or in some hard cases we try to improve their readiness, reliability of that part so if you have greater readiness you also don’t have to replace that part as often,” Perrin added.

Perrin argued the cost reduction in the program has been “tremendous, and really shows that we are driving the cost out of this program and out of this airframe.”

He also said the program is now getting ready to conduct Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) this summer.

Three system demonstration test article aircraft are being operated by the Marine Corps’ Operational Test and Evaluation squadron, VMX-1, based at Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C. in advance of the start of IOT&E. 

Perrin said VMX-1 recently completed initial training on the CH-53K, having flown over 225 of training hours and qualified all pilots and aircrew for IOT&E operation.

“In fact, I’m fairly confident we haven’t completed all of the steps yet, still have to go through what we call an operational test readiness review. That’s scheduled for [July 1], but shortly after that I expect VMX to officially go to operational tests for that initial operational test and evaluation period. So that’s really a big deal for the program, for the Marine Corps.”

Based on how training has gone thus far, Perrin said he expects VMX-1 and the helicopter to perform very well in operational tests.

I believe that…the service will be ready to declare IOC sometime early this fall…And we’re already working on getting ready for Lot 7 and 8 and getting into our forward production decision.”

Perrin said the forward production decision and program schedule will be in the FY ’23 budget request because “we’re looking really good on that as well.”

He noted the first CH-53K squadron, once IOC is declared, will start the transition in fiscal year 2022 and will be based in New River, N.C.

Perrin confirmed the Navy has purchased the GE T408 engines through Lot 5 and is currently in the process of purchasing engines for Lots 6, 7, and 8.

“We actually have a proposal in on that from GE, so we’re in our evaluation of that and going through the evaluation process with GE…I will say that the cost of the motors is driving down as well, he said. “We are very excited that GE is doing a great job at driving those costs down and the team is doing a great job of doing that as well.”