The CH-53K and Expanding German Defense Options: Shaping a Way Ahead for Enhanced Defense of the German Defense Perimeter

By Robbin Laird

As I argued in my last article on reshaping German defense: “Germany needs to have capabilities to move force in support of allies with real military capability to deploy force rapidly to close a seam and to reinforce both security and defense needs to shore up coalition capabilities rapidly.

“This is about force insertion to both deter and defend with allies the key choke points or seams which the Russians seek to exploit to get the kind of crisis management outcomes they seek. Having the right insertion force package to move on the European chessboard is crucial for Germany.”

The heavy lift capabilities which the CH-53K will provide for German forces allow for support across the range of military operations (ROMO), ranging from security assistance to moving force into place to reinforce defensive positions (such as for the German forces which deploy to the Baltics) or to provide forward deployed forces at greater range such as in Norway or Romania.

For example, in an April 22, 2022 story, the German Foreign Minister in a meeting with the Lithuanian Foreign Minister highlighted the importance of reinforcing Baltic defense and Germany’s role in this effort.

“We are currently discussing the new defence concept with our NATO partners. Therefore, it is important that we act decisively together as an alliance and not as individual foreign ministers. It is important to be together during the process,” she told a joint news conference with Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis.

“If NATO decides that [the battalion] shall be reinforced to the level of a brigade, we, as the Federal Republic of Germany, will significantly contribute to that. I’ve understood that there is a necessity, there is a need, and Germany will take respective actions,” Baerbock added.

“NATO battalions were deployed in the Baltic countries and Poland in 2017 as a way to deter Russia. Germany leads the multinational battalion in Lithuania and has around 1,000 troops deployed in the country. Countries on NATO’s eastern flank seek to reinforce those battalions to the level of a brigade in response to Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine.

“NATO’s current strategy of deterrence was no longer suitable in the Baltic countries, Baerbock said, adding that the alliance had to be ready to combat a potential threat and defend itself immediately in this region.”

But how in fact will Germany be able to do so?

German ground capabilities as provided by infantry armored vehicles, or ground artillery pieces, can be moved by the CH-53K with its unprecedented external lift capabilities, while carrying support elements inside the aircraft at the same time.

And the addition of the F-35 along with the current operation of the C-130Js provides the German forces with the same kind of insertion package which the Marines are working with to enable significant movement of insertion forces throughout the expanded battlespace.

The Germans have acquired C-130Js for among other reasons, to be able to refuel, fixed wing and rotorcraft, and are working with the Marines in training to operate their C-130Js in a variety of mission roles. It certainly is clear that the Marines operate their C-130Js in a wide variety of missions, and by training with the Marines, the Luftwaffe can easily transition to training for a similar range of mission options.

With the Germans operating the same three aircraft as the USMC, the Germans can train with them to provide for an ongoing common force insertion concept of operations.

And as both forces will operate throughout the Nordic, Baltic, Polish and East European regions, such common capabilities provide for a force multiplier for both the German and U.S. forces involved in European direct defense. Certainly, pooling of supplies and of maintenance capabilities could be worked as well.

In an earlier article, I focused on the question of why the CH-53K was a much better choice for the German Armed Forces than the CH-47. That article was published in 2020, at the time when Germany seemed to be moving towards a downselect of a lift helicopter. What I wrote then is only bolstered by Russian actions in Ukraine, and in Europe, more generally.

This is what I highlighted in that article.

Recently, there have been a number of articles which have directly raised the question of how the Chinook compares with the CH-53K which suggested that the venerable though legacy Chinook is good enough to consider treating the CH-53K as an outlier to both U.S. Army modernization and for the German armed forces.

For example, Loren Thompson wrote a piece published on July 22, 2020 for Forbes which is entitled, “Why Boeing Believes it Will Win the competition to Supply Heavy-Lift Helicopters to Germany and Israel.” This is a good place to start.

Thompson noted that “Boeing, builder of the rival CH-47F twin-rotor Chinook, has other ideas. It thinks it can displace the CH-53 from both the German and Israeli markets by offering an upgraded version of its own heavy lifter that meets all customer performance requirements at considerably less cost.”

We should note at the outset that the CH-53K is a heavy lift helicopter; the Chinook is not—it is a medium lift helicopter, based on weight that each can carry. But putting aside that point, the argument boils down to the notion that the CH-53K is built to support unique Marine Corps missions which the Germans will not need, and that Chinook is more than adequate for German needs.

“Although King Stallion is a bigger aircraft than Chinook, Boeing notes that the size of their cabins is virtually identical. In fact, it says that due to weight limits on the CH-53K’s wheels, the CH-47F can “oftentimes carry more weight internally than the CH-53K.” Since Germany and Israel do not conduct the kind of ship-to-shore maneuvers practiced by the U.S. Marine Corps, Boeing figures that the greater external lifting power of King Stallion isn’t worth the additional cost to either country.”

Then Thompson highlights that Boeing believes that the “CH-53K is so new that its future reliability and maintainability are not yet proven.” And associated with this is that there is a higher level of risk in buying a new helicopter and in the potential challenges of customization of the aircraft for Israeli and German needs. Boeing ignores that the block upgrade that they offer in their medium lift Chinook is a development and not production program.

But the core point of comparison highlighted by Boeing is the question of cost. “Boeing contends that the cost of procuring and operating the latest version of Chinook is far below that of King Stallion. In an apples-to-apples comparison, it calculates that ‘CH-47F aircraft cost is about half the CH-53K.’ The higher price-tag for King Stallion could be justified if it were a markedly better fit for German and Israeli performance requirements, or more reliable and maintainable, but Boeing doubts that a case for either claim could be made convincingly.”

This presentation highlights why the legacy aircraft has perceived advantages over a new, 4th generation aircraft, but does not really answer the question of how Chinook fits into the new demands being placed on the German armed forces not how it relates to the overall modernization strategy of German defense.

If this was the Cold War, where the primary focus was really upon moving support around Germany to reinforce the direct defense of Germany, then there might be a compelling case for the legacy Chinook. But that is not what Germany is facing in terms of the return of direct defense in Europe. In our forthcoming book, The Return of Direct Defense in Europe: Meeting the 21st Century Authoritarian Challenge, we focus on the major challenges facing the allies in terms of defense against the Russians in terms of the Poland-to Nordic arc. Within this arc, the challenge is to move force rapidly, to reinforce deterrence and to be able to block Russian movement of force.

Germany faces the challenge of reinforcing their Baltic brigade, moving rapidly to reinforce Poland, and to move force where appropriate to its Southern Flank. In the 2018 Trident Juncture exercise, German forces moved far too slowly to be effective in a real crisis, and it is clear that augmenting rapid insertion of force with lift is a key requirement for Germany to play an effective role.

This is where the CH-53K as a next generation heavy lift helicopter fits very nicely into German defense needs and evolving concepts of operations. The CH-53K operates standard 463L pallets which means it can move quickly equipment and supply pallets from the German A400Ms or C-130Js to the CH-53K or vice versa.

This is not just a nice to have capability but has a significant impact in terms of time to combat support capability; and it is widely understood that time to the operational area against the kind of threat facing Germany and its allies is a crucial requirement.

With an integrated fleet of C-130Js, A400Ms and CH-53Ks, the task force would have the ability to deploy 100s of miles while aerial refueling the CH-53K from the C-130J. Upon landing at an austere airfield, cargo on a 463L pallet from a A400M or C-130J can transload directly into a CH-53K on the same pallet providing for a quick turnaround and allowing the CH-53K to deliver the combat resupply, humanitarian assistance supplies or disaster relief material to smaller land zones dispersed across the operating area.

Similarly, after aerial refueling from a C-130J, the CH-53K using its single, dual and triple external cargo hook capability could transfer three independent external loads to three separate supported units in three separate landing zones in one single sortie without having to return to the airfield or logistical hub.

The external system can be rapidly reconfigured between dual point, single point loads, and triple hook configurations, to internal cargo carrying configuration, or troop lift configuration in order to best support the ground scheme of maneuver.

If the German Baltic brigade needs enhanced capability, it is not a time you want to discover that your lift fleet really cannot count on your heavy lift helicopter showing up as part of an integrated combat team, fully capable of range, speed, payload and integration with the digital force being built out by the German military.

It should be noted that the CH-53K is air refuellable; the Chinook is not. And the CH-53 K’s air refuellable capability is built in for either day or night scenarios.

A 2019 exercise highlighted the challenge if using the Chinooks to move capability into the corridor. In the Green Dagger exercise held in Germany, the goal was to move a German brigade over a long distance to support an allied engagement. The Dutch Chinooks were used by the German Army to do the job. But it took them six waves of support to get the job done.

Obviously, this is simply too long to get the job done when dealing with an adversary who intends to use time to his advantage. In contrast, if the CH-53K was operating within the German Army, we are talking one or two insertion waves.

And the distributed approach which is inherent in dealing with peer competitors will require distributed basing and an ability to shape airfields in austere locations to provide for distributed strike and reduce the vulnerabilities of operating from a small number of known airbases.

Here the CH-53K becomes combat air’s best friend. In setting up Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), the CH-53K can distribute fuel and ordnance and forward fueling and rearming points for the fighter aircraft operating from the FOBs.

Being a new generation helicopter it fits into the future, not the past of what the Bundeswehr has done in the Cold War. It is not a legacy Cold War relic, but a down payment on the transformation of the Bundeswehr itself into a more reactive, and rapid deployment force to the areas of interest which Germany needs to be engaged to protect its interests and contribute to the operational needs of their European allies.

From an operational standpoint, the K versus the E or the Chinook for that matter, offers new capabilities for the combat force.  And from this perspective, the perspective of the two platforms can be looked at somewhat differently than from the perspective presented in the Thompson article.

Next generation air platforms encompass several changes as compared to the predecessors which are at least thirty years old or older, notably in terms of design. Next generation air platforms are designed from the ground up with the digital age as a key reality.

This means that such systems are focused on connectivity with other platforms, upgradeability built in through software enablement and anticipated code rewriting as operational experience is gained, cockpits built to work with new digital ISR and C2 systems onboard or integratable within the cockpit of the platform, materials technology which leverages the composite revolution, and management systems designed to work with big data to provide for more rapid and cost effective upgradeability and maintainability.

Such is the case with the CH-53K compared to its legacy ancestor, the CH-53E or with the venerable legacy Chinook medium lift helicopter. Comparing the legacy with the next generation is really about comparing historically designed aircraft to 21st century designed and manufactured aircraft. As elegant as the automobiles of the 1950s clearly are, from a systems point of view, they pale in comparison to 2020s automobiles in terms of sustainability and effective performance parameters.

To take two considerations into account, the question of customization of the German and Israeli variants and the question of sustainability both need to be considered with next generation in mind.

With regard to customization and modernization, digital aircraft provide a totally different growth path than do a legacy aircraft like the CH-53E or the CH-47. Software modifications, and reconfigurations can provide for distinctive variants of aircrafts in a way that legacy systems would have to do with hardware mods. And with regard to security levels of information flows, software defined systems have significant advantages over legacy systems as well.

With regard to sustainability, NAVAIR and the USMC have taken unprecedented steps to deliver a sustainable aircraft at the outset. The logistics demo effort at New River has taken the new aircraft and worked through how to best ensure sustainability when the first squadron is deployed.

With the data generated by the CH-53K, the “smart” aircraft becomes a participant in providing inputs to a more effective situational awareness to the real performance of the aircraft in operational conditions, and that data then flows into the management system to provide a much more realistic understanding of parts performance. This then allows the maintenance technicians and managers to provide higher levels of performance and readiness than without the data flowing from the aircraft itself.

Put in other terms, the data which the aircraft generates makes the aircraft itself an “intellectual” participant in the sustainment eco system. This is certainly not the case with legacy aircraft which were not birthed in the digital software upgradeable world.

The next generation system which the CH-53K represents brings capabilities to the challenges which Germany faces in terms of getting force rapidly to the point of attack or defense required by the Bundeswehr. It is no longer about defending against breakthroughs in the Fulda Gap; it is about moving force rapidly to make a difference in a time urgent combat setting on Germany’s periphery and flanks.

Much has happened since I published that article, but what has happened since simply reinforces the points which I made in that piece.

First, the Israelis chose the CH-53K over the Ch-47 and did so for the reasons which I highlighted about range and capability.

Second, the CH-53K has progressed smartly through the acquisition cycle to the point where the first USMC operational CH-53K squadron has flown its first flight.

Third, the capabilities of the aircraft have been validated throughout the entire test and evaluation process and have clearly underscored for the operating force how important this aircraft will be for the USMC and the joint force.

When I visited 2nd Marine Air Wing in July of last year, where the CH-53K is entering the force, the CG of 2nd MAW, Major General Cederholm underscored how important he saw the CH-53K to the coming of his North Carolina based Marines: “I was amazed at the automation that’s built into the aircraft. To be honest with you, I can’t stop thinking about what the different possibilities are of how we can make this platform support our operating concept on the battlefield of today; but not just today, but on the battlefield of the future.”

The German MoD has a clear choice one that builds towards the future while providing a significant contribution to the current force, or operating in a legacy framework no longer adequate to the direct defense challenges of today’s Europe.

The featured photo is of the German and Lithuanian Foreign Ministers. Credit:  Ž. Gedvilos/BNS nuotr.

CH-53K Versus the Chinook: German Platform Decisions 1