Adding Rotorcraft Lift to the German Defense Forces: The Case for the CH-53K

By Robbin Laird

When measured against the key elements for reshaping German defense, the CH-53K entering the USMC today has some significant advantages compared with the Chinook.

A base line consideration when making this decision recalls the question of comparing Super Hornets to F-35s.

The Super Hornets were designed many years ago and built around legacy upgrade concepts; the F-35 was not.

This means that upgrades are addressed very differently, and building on the foundation of a digital aircraft built on a digital foundation from the ground up provides very different upgrade approaches and opportunities than a a legacy aircraft.

The same is true of the Chinook versus the Ch-53K.

It is designed and built from the ground up as a digital aircraft.

An interview which I did last year with Colonel Jack Perrin, Program Manager, PMA-261, H-53 Heavy Lift Helicopters, Naval Air Systems Command at Patuxent River, Maryland, highlighted ways in which an aircraft built from the ground up in the digital age is very different from a legacy aircraft designed in the 1960s and upgraded over time.

As with the F-35, the CH-53K has significant advantages of being built from the ground up on a digital age foundation.

The discussion with Perrin in June 2021 was as follows:

Talking to the digital part of the 53K, we are using a really a leading-edge integrated maintenance device. It’s basically a computer, but instead of just having PDFs of the maintenance manuals on it, it provides an interactive maintenance manual designed for and supportive of being able to do that maintenance.

And that system has really driven a lot of efficiencies into executing maintenance, because the maintainer can take it and have that digital environment right there with him.

We also have an onboard mission computer, what we call the integrated vehicle maintenance system.

And that integrated vehicle maintenance allows us to record data on the aircraft, not only the performance data, how the engines are doing, how the gearbox is doing, what the status of the aircraft is, where the pilots put it, what environment it was flying in, but also records the vibrations of the aircraft.

It’s integrated into the maintenance system.

And that system has a data center that takes the data that we’ve gotten off the aircraft and reviews it automatically.

We run algorithms on it that can show you a new predictive maintenance procedure for the aircraft.

I don’t really know of any other platform that’s at that level of integration already.

We’re going to get to a full condition-based maintenance aircraft, because it is digital, because we do collect all the data on it and we’re able to gather that data, store that data, and able to run algorithms and programs on it so that you can manipulate that data and better do predictive analysis of how that aircraft is performing, and where your bad actors are.

It also helps us reduce the Operations and Support costs of this platform, even compared to the CH-53E.

So that’s another big bonus for us and the Marine Corps, as we move forward, trying to make the aircraft not only affordable in production, of which we certainly are doing.

We’re seeing the cost of the aircraft coming down as we’ve just recently got a handshake and within the next month or so, we’ll be awarding lot five with an option for lot six for a total of 18 more aircraft that we’re putting out in the production line to deliver to the fleet.

But we’re also focused on reducing the cost to operate and maintain this aircraft.

To do this we are shaping a fleet common operating environment to manage the fleet.

Question: I would like to return to the digital point for a moment.

The CH-53K is a digital aircraft as you have said and working digital data as part of the operational and sustainment efforts is a key foundation as the force works towards adding autonomous systems – which are completely software driven to the force.

How would you characterize the impact of the manned digital system preparing the way for unmanned systems?  

Col. Perrin:   The digital character of the aircraft reduces the workload of the pilots and the crew so much that they can have that spare capacity to do those additional tasks that they will see in that digital battlefield, whether it’s communicating or operating with other symbiotic platforms that are going be out there.

Because I agree with you, the future really is about the unmanned world and that force multiplier that they can provide to some of those manned systems, but to get there you have to start by understanding, working with and mastering digital backbone manned systems.

And to be clear — although the CH-53K is designed from ground up to have capabilities for futuristic development, the CH-53K is ready now and not a developmental project.

One of the mis-statements made about the CH-53K in the German competition is that the CH-53K is a developmental project, by which is meant that it is not ready for operational use.

This claim is simply untrue, and confuses upgradeability capabilities built into a platform with it being an unfinished product.

The case of all platforms built on a digital foundation is that they are inherently “unfinished” in the sense that they will grow capability through software development and integration with various other multi-domain systems.

But this does not mean that they are not operationally superior to legacy systems which have no such promise.

Ironically, Airbus partnered with Boeing to offer support to the Bundeswehr buying a legacy helicopter.

This in spite of Airbus Defence and Space highlighting and spearheading the Future Combat System project with France and Spain.

The CH-53K is clearly a better platform participant in any FCAS in comparison with Chinook.

Earlier this year, I focused on the impact of FCAS on the rotorcraft lift decision and will close this article by focusing on this key dimension of this platform choice.

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.

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.

 Featured Photo: U.S. Marines with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 461 walk to CH-53K King Stallions at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, Aug. 5, 2022. This was the first time the Marine Corps deployed the King Stallion in an exercise.

HMH-461 is a subordinate unit of 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, the aviation combat element of II Marine Expeditionary Force. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Adam Henke)