The German Helicopter Lift Decision: FCAS Way Ahead Makes the CH-53K the Obvious Choice

By Robbin Laird

For the reworking of German defense, which can be enabled by the F-35 acquisition, adding the CH-53K which is being integrated into the next phase of USMC transformation makes a great deal of sense.

Why would the German Luftwaffe wish to operate a legacy lift helicopter – a variant of the CH-47 — whose future is behind it? 

Even more interesting to me is the question of how the F-35 acquisition affects FCAS and how the choice of a new heavy lift — versus medium lift — helicopter either slows down an FCAS enabled German force or helps accelerate it.

The Future Combat Air System (FCAS) is built around shaping a networked force, one which can operate as a kill web enabled force. At the same time, the focus of the partners in FCAS, Germany, France and Spain, is upon platforms as well, notably building a new fighter which would be IOCd in the late 2030s.

But there is an inherent tension between the network enablement piece and the platform piece. Shaping a 21st century kill enabled network force is built around C2 and ISR systems which are both sovereign from a national point of view and integrable from a coalition point of view. Platforms which can enable such capabilities are a clear priority, whether built in Europe or bought from allies.

So why is Airbus Germany which has underscored the importance of FCAS, supporting Boeing in supporting a legacy system which does really nothing to carry forward the FCAS aspirational approach whereas clearly an F-35-CH-53K tandem does?

For the Marines, the F-35 capabilities are crucial to enable the ground insertion force and to enable their ability to distribute the ground force but to provided integrative C2 and ISR “tissue” to enable the 360-degree warfighting capabilities of the ground maneuver force. One reason the Marines are adding a new combat heavy lift capability to their force is precisely because they needed a new lift capability which is fully integratable with their F-35 enabled ground insertion force.

Put simply, the CH-53E is too old of an aircraft in terms of how the C2 and sensor systems have been built for legacy systems to take advantage of the digital revolution of which the F-35 is a key driver for a joint force. It is designed from the ground up to be a digital aircraft, and to work on the digital battlefield, for which the F-35 is a key element. The aircraft brings new capabilities to the force which are in no way the same as the CH-53E. Much like the F-35 is built the ground up differently from legacy aircraft which enables them to anchor a digitally enabled warfighting force, the CH-53K is built from the ground up to operate in this context. Neither the CH-53E or the legacy U.S. Army medium-lift helicopters are.

One of those capabilities is the new cockpit in the aircraft and how digital interoperability and integration with the evolution of the Marine combat elements more broadly is facilitated by the operation of a 21st century cockpit. The cockpits are very different and fit in with a general trend for 21st century aircraft of having digital cockpits with combat flexibility management built in.

Because the flight crew is operating a digital aircraft, many of the functions which have to be done manually in the E, are done by the aircraft itself. This allows the cockpit crew to focus on combat management and force insertion tasks. And the systems within the cockpit allow for the crew to play this function.

This means that the K and its onboard Marines and cargo can be integrated into a digitally interoperable force. This means as well that the K could provide a lead role for the insertion package, or provide for a variety of support roles beyond simply bringing Marines and cargo to the fight. They are bringing information as well which can be distributed to the combat force in the area of interest.

In a 2020 interview which I did with Col. Perrin, Program Manager, PMA-261 H53 Heavy Lift Helicopters, U.S. Naval Air Systems Command at Pax River Naval Air Station, the officer highlighted the importance of the USMC having a digital heavy lift aircraft integrated into the evolving digital battlefield which is a key driver in USMC transformation to succeed in the high-end fight which our 21st century authoritarian competitors are engaged in: “The CH-53K can operate and fight on the digital battlefield.”

For example, it is clearly a conceivable future that CH-53Ks would be flying a heavy lift operation with unmanned “mules” accompanying them. Such manned-unmanned teaming requires a lot of digital capability and bandwidth, a capability built into the CH-53K.

An additional USMC perspective was provided during a visit to 2nd Marine Air Wing in July 2021 to Marine Corps Air Station New River where I had a chance to visit the VMX-1 CH-53K detachment at New River Marine Corps Air Station and to continue my discussions with LtCol Frank, Officer in Charge of the CH-53K Operational Test Detachment at New River. Being a generational shift, the new digital aircraft is in LtCol Frank’s words “a blank slate.”

“You have an aircraft that can carry significant supplies or Marines inside and can carry 36,000 pounds externally. They can carry a lot of stuff. It has automated flight control systems that allows you to land in the degraded visual environments that you would not dare land an ECHO or a DELTA in. It can fly long distance without the air crew being fatigued. If you’re aerial refueling and flying 1,000 miles in the E, the air crew would be wet noodles getting out after the flight. In the K you can relax a little, take a breath, allow the aircraft to help you fly and thus reduce aircrew fatigue significantly.

“I think when the necessity for conflict rears its head the K will be able to respond, and using human ingenuity, the operators will be able to find a way to support any mission that the Marine Corps needs it to do. The K is so versatile that I don’t see people being pigeonholed into not being able to do something with a K. I think they’ll be able to answer the call 99.9% of the time.

“It’ll be able to pick up its combat payload. It’ll be able to transport it, fly it any distance and land it anywhere. And you’re not going to be afraid to do it. In the ECHO, if it was low light at night, the visibility was bad, you didn’t have a moving map, and you were headed to a dusty and tight zone the pucker factor would be through the roof. The altitude hold was suspect, it didn’t have lateral navigation and flight director capability, your attitude gyros would fail often. So you get this hair on the back of your neck stands up that, I don’t want to be flying in this environment. The aircraft’s not going to help me, and I can’t help myself because I don’t have my sensory cues.

“But in the K, you know the aircraft’s going to help you. We’ve sat in brown out dust, just sitting there hovering and talking to each other with position hold on. And we’ve been debriefing the landing, and the aircraft’s just holding a hover perfectly. So that’s what I like about the K is that I think it will be able to answer the call for the mission most anytime the Marine Corps needs it, whether we know what the mission is going to be, or not.”

Featured Photo: The first operational flight of the CH-53K is seen returning to USMC Air Station New River on April 13, 2022.

We have focused on the shaping of a future combat system in Europe for several years. And last year published a report which provide an overview on its evolution. 

The Future Combat Air System (FCAS) is a core initiative of the Macron Administration for both defense modernization and building out defense cooperation with its core Airbus allies, Germany and Spain. The Administration is committed to the modernization of their core combat fighter aircraft, the Rafale, for the next thirty years. But FCAS is designed to deliver a next generation fighter aircraft.

This project is designed to replace both the Rafale and the Eurofighter with a “combat cloud” ready aircraft, that is one designed to work interactively with other air assets in delivering the desired combat effects.

It is a clear response to what the Macron Administration views as the F-35 challenge to European sovereignty. And indeed, European sovereignty is a key part of the Macron version of Gaullism, much like the General launched the independent nuclear deterrent.

At its core, the goal is for Germany and France to work closely together in shaping this new collaborative venture. But the significant disconnect between defense inn Germany and France poses a core challenge to the project. And different approaches to arms exports also affects the program and its future.

Even more significant is the pressure of time. Europe is being challenged by Putin significantly. Does Europe have time to wait for enhanced sovereignty in exchange for enhanced defense capabilities in the near to mid- term?

The F-35 is already a significant player in European defense and will steadily enhance its role in the mutli- domain defense being shaped by NATO. The interoperability efforts of NATO are a key part of the Macron Administration’s approach to defense as well, so FCAS will be designed to work with core allies as the program evolves.

But there is a major challenge facing networking in defense, as several initiatives are underway to shape secure communications for the combat force, and some of those clearly are designed to leverage new civilian technologies like 5G.