A Department of the Navy Sustainment Strategy-Aviation effort, begun in 2018, may lay out mission capable (MC) rate goals for service aircraft, including the Lockheed Martin [LMT] Sikorsky CH-53K helicopter.

This summer, Sikorsky said that it delivered to the U.S. Marine Corps the third Low-Rate Initial Production (LRIP) and seventh CH-53K King Stallion heavy lift helicopter, which achieved initial operational capability in April (Defense Daily, July 15). Marine Corps Air Station New River in Jacksonville, N.C., is the aircraft base. The Department of the Navy may make a CH-53K full-rate production decision next year.

The CH-53K is to have nearly three times the lift capacity of its predecessor, the CH-53E, 57 percent more horsepower from the CH-53K’s General Electric [GE] T408-GE-400 engines and 63 percent fewer parts than the CH-53E.

“Reducing the number of parts was a deliberate step in the design of the [CH-53K] aircraft to improve maintainability,” PMA-261, the H-53 Heavy Lift Helicopters Program at Naval Air Systems Command, wrote in email responses to questions on Dec. 14. “This improved maintainability could help increase mission capable rates.”

The Marine Corps, which is to deploy the first CH-53K Marine Expeditionary Unit detachment in fiscal year 2024, wants the CH-53K to achieve full operational capability by 2029.

Military officials have said that the Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter and the CH-53K are to be marquee testing grounds for new performance-based logistics (PBL) contracts, yet whether those PBL funding levels will depend on the achievement of specific flying performance rates or other measures, such as the on-time delivery of reliable parts to the military, remains to be seen.

The F-35 program was to have a PBL contract in place this year, but that has not happened, and it is unlikely that the Department of the Navy will issue a PBL contract for the CH-53K soon.

“Analyses on individual components are conducted as flight hours are accumulated,” PMA-261 said. “When and if the data supports a business case, a [PBL] contract may be awarded with the manufacturer.”

Sikorsky said that it has had a PBL contract for the CH-53E for 16 years.

PMA-261 said that it has drawn lessons on sustainment from the F-35 and other platforms.

“The program has benefited from programs that have gone before in regards to subcomponent levels of repair analyses, initiating organic repair contracts early in the process for Intermediate and Depot maintenance, executing a logistics demonstration to verify maintenance tasks in the Interactive Electronic Technical Manual (IETM), developing maintainer familiarity with the airframe, and using tools and support equipment early to verify correct fitment,” the program office said.

The 200 planned CH-53Ks are to replace 139 CH-53Es. The latter are among 45 DoD aircraft that have not achieved program MC rate goals in a majority of the years between fiscal 2011 and 2021, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report last month, Weapon System Sustainment Aircraft Mission Capable Goals Were Generally Not Met and Sustainment Costs Varied by Aircraft (GAO-23-106217).

“The CH-53E program has been facing challenges with depot maintenance delays,” GAO said. “More specifically, program officials said that the average planned maintenance interval turnaround time for the 12 aircraft that were completed in fiscal year 2021 was 344 days, while the planned time was 271 days. According to program officials, excess corrosion was a key reason for the actual turnaround times.”

The CH-53E “has also faced unexpected part replacements and repairs, according to program officials,” per the GAO report. “For example, officials told us that main rotor head dampers, which are supposed to last for 800 hours before needing repair/to be replaced, are only lasting 150 hours or less. In response, the program revised the process for installing new dampers and ensured that the replacement parts are available to the fleet so that aircraft are not out of commission for extended periods, according to program officials. Further, officials said that the original equipment manufacturer’s ongoing initiative to improve the reliability of the damper and expect that new dampers will be available in 2023.”

The DoD aircraft that met their MC rate goals in most of the years between fiscal 2011 and 2021 were the Bell [TXT] UH-1N helicopters for security and support for the U.S. Air Force ICBM fields; the Air Force B-2 Spirit stealth bomber by Northrop Grumman [NOC], the Navy EP-3E Aries by Lockheed Martin, and the Air Force RC-135S/W Cobra Ball and Rivet Joint by Boeing [BA].

The UH-1N met its MC rate goals all 11 years, the EP-3E seven of the years, and the B-2 and RC-135S/W six years, GAO said.