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Saturday, October 1, 2005

Steeling the Stallion

James T. McKenna

The U.S. Marine Corps needs a new heavy-lift capability and is convinced an upgrade of the CH-53 is its best bet.

U.S. Marine Corp officials are anticipating a Defense Dept. decision this month or next that would clear them to contract with Sikorsky Aircraft to develop and demonstration a heavy-lift replacement for its aging workhorse, the CH-53E.

Col. Paul Croisetiere, the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command program manager for the H-53 Heavy-Lift Helicopters Program (PMA 261), said his team has spent the last six months working with Sikorsky, NavAir officials and representatives from Capitol Hill to address concerns about costs and cost-containment for what is commonly referred to as the CH-53X. Outside consultants also reviewed the program work done by Sikorsky to date and again assessed options for meeting what are increasingly urgent Marine requirements for new heavy-lift capability.

With that work in hand, Croisetiere said, he is anticipating a Defense Acquisition Board review of the heavy-lift program within the next two months that would clear the program to Milestone B and "allow us to enter a contract award" for system development and demonstration. Croisetiere got authorization last month from the Navy to work toward Milestone B approval in Fiscal 2006 (which started Oct. 1), pending the Defense Acquisition Board's decision.

The program got a boost in August when the Navy awarded Sikorsky a $43-million contract to continue risk reduction work on the Heavy-Lift Replacement program. That contract will fund engineering trade studies, configuration definition, and related program planning activities. It is a follow-on to a previous $34-million contract that Sikorsky got last year for the initial round of risk-reduction work.

The Heavy-Lift Replacement program calls for development and procurement of 156 new-build helicopters derived from the CH-53E Super Stallion. The program plans to get first deliveries of the new aircraft in 2014. That is pushing it. Officials have said previously they need replacements for the CH-53Es by 2012, when Super Stallions in the fleet begin reaching hard life limits. As with most military procurement programs, the exact development schedule and procurement quantities would be determined by yearly budget authorizations and specific contract awards.

"We need heavy lift right now," Croisetiere said. In addition to combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, the CH-53E are supporting operations in the Horn of Africa and deploying with Marine Expeditionary Units.

In a sign of the Marines' predicament, in August three Super Stallions were retrieved from the military aircraft "boneyard," at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz. and transported to Naval Air Depot Cherry Point, N.C., where they will be upgraded and returned to active service.

That marks the first time H-53s have been recalled from the nation's war reserve at the desert storage site, according to Lt. Col. David Owen, NAVAIR Depot Cherry Point's H-53 program manager.

The Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center in Arizona maintains more than 5,000 excess Defense Dept. and Coast Guard aircraft for the nation's war needs.

The three aircraft being refurbished are intended to replace aircraft lost in combat operations. "We haven't lost any aircraft to enemy action, but the harsh and unforgiving natural environment where these aircraft are relied upon for day-to-day logistics and assault support has taken its toll," said Lt. Col. Stewart Gold, NAVAIR H-53 assistant program manager for logistics at Patuxent River, Md.

To meet present mission requirements, deployed Marines have to transfer aircraft between squadrons. "It's a quite a lot of work. Each aircraft has a history and a different upkeep and configuration," Owen said.

The three H-53s have been in the bone yard for about 11 years and are about 22 years old. Sikorsky ceased production of H-53s in 1999. Refurbishing the aircraft and setting them to current -53E configurations will take 18-20 months.

In again reviewing the costs of the Heavy-Lift Replacement program, Croisetiere said, officials examined options for phased and blocked upgrades or acquisitions. The answer?

"You really need to do this aircraft in one step."

Options with near-term savings have bigger long-term costs. "It's like pushing one side of a fat man," he said. "Something pops out on the other side."

As it is, the envisioned replacement will be a bare-bones aircraft. "There aren't a lot of bells and whistles," Croisetiere said. "The most sophisticated parts of the aircraft would be the avionics and a state-of-the-art drive train."

A key objective of the replacement is that it simplify and lower the cost of maintaining the heavy-lift helicopter.

"We're running a little over 40 maintenance man hours per flight hour" for the CH-53E, Croisetiere said. "We believe we can drop that to below 15 maintenance man hours per flight hour.

"When you first consider how old the technology is on this aircraft and you then look, for example, at the H-60 with its modern technology," the Black Hawk has readiness rates above 90 percent largely because it's got new avionics, he said.

"We're going to totally redesign the wiring," he added. "One of the issues we're dealing with in some aircraft in our fleet is the aromatic polyimide wiring. We're looking to replace it in our current aircraft because it frays easily in the conditions we operate in, and it's difficult to maintain."

A big benefit of the upgrade would be replacement of the CH-53E's instrument panels, which are filled with old-style "steam" gages. "It's a human-factors nightmare that the Corps has learned to live with," Croisetiere said. "We want to get rid of all the round dials."

The program has six key performance parameters, he added, and three are logistics ones. "By getting rid of the obsolete analog gauges, we will reduce repair costs and the material that we take with us when we deploy."

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