Leveraging the Integrated German Lift Force for Enhanced Multi-Domain Operations

By Robbin Laird

The lift fleet is a key enabler for German forward defense.

An ability to deliver integrated operational capability from that fleet will be a key element for supporting forward deployed or reinforcement forces, and an ability to operate in a distributed manner across an extended battlespace.

My colleague John Conway, who is also a Research Fellow at the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia, as am I, highlighted the key challenge facing force structure development going forward.

As the ADF moves forward, Conway has underscored the “triangle of tradeoffs” for development of the force, namely, lethality, survivability and affordability. It is not about investing in balanced force development for its own sake; rather investments need to be directed to those elements of the ADF which can deliver lethality and survivability at the most affordable cost.

For a distributed but forward operating force this requires sustainability and an ability to deliver ongoing support to such a force.

And here the role of a lift force is crucial.

And the affordability piece means that enhanced integratability of that force is not just a nice to have but key element for force structure development.

A key element for enhanced lethality, survivability and affordability is to shape a fleet where future capabilities can be anticipated and enabled by that fleet.

For example, enhanced lethality for the German forces and their allies can be delivered from the A400M operating as an arsenal aircraft.

Given the flight stability of the aircraft and the evolving weapons capabilities built around a weapons in the box and loitering weapons, it is clearly possible for the A400M operating at a distance to provide weapons to the kill web enabled force in which a target can be identified by a forward deployed element and weapons fired at distance can be guided to that target.

The KC-130J has already been modified in the Harvest Hawk version for weapons release.

As one article noted: “Dropping bombs out of cargo planes has been a common measure of desperation for under-equipped air forces and opportunistic mercenaries throughout the history of aviation. However, in 2009 the U.S. Marine Corps found a way to make a virtue out of flexibility by developing Harvest Hawk, a kit which allowed their new KC-130J refueling tankers to double as missile-toting gunships and creepy aerial spying platforms that would put the Eye of Mordor to shame.”

The point is rather simple: lift aircraft can operate as key elements of a multi-domain force and can more than simply lift assets if so configured.

In an interview I did with a Marine Corps “Harvest Hawk” officer in 2014, this officer highlighted the importance of this element in understanding the lift force.

“The USMC Captain is of the new generation of USMC pilots who have flown the KC-130J from the beginning and so the Harvest Hawk experience seems a “normal” evolution and simply preparing for the next transition, whereby the “mother ship” can handle data, C2 or ordinance dependent on the evolution of USMC concepts of operations.

“This is how Captain Jordan put it: “The entire Harvest Hawk experience highlights the utility of a “mother ship” in an air dominance environment. There is no reason that we cannot take data from UAVs or the F-35s or the Harrier litening pods and be able to contribute to combat management or support to the ground commanders.”

And with adding an aircraft built for the digital age from the ground up, it can be anticipated that future innovations can be enabled by this aircraft to extend the capability of the force.

Or put another way, the affordability piece of the equation is delivered by the platform’s ability to evolve and support survivability and lethality of the force.

In a 2020 interview with Colonel Jack Perrin, Program Manager, PMA-261 H53 Heavy Lift Helicopters, US Naval Air Systems Command at Pax River Naval Air Station, I discussed one aspect of such future development.

As Col. Perrin noted in our conversation: “The USMC has done many studies of distributed operations and throughout the analyses it is clear that heavy lift is an essential piece of the ability to do such operations.” And not just any heavy lift – but heavy lift built around a digital architecture.

Clearly, the CH-53E being more than 30 years old is not built in such a manner; but the CH-53K is. What this means is that the CH-53K “can operate and fight on the digital battlefield.”

And because the flight crew are enabled by the digital systems onboard, they can focus on the mission rather than focusing primarily on the mechanics of flying the aircraft. This will be crucial as the Marines shift to using unmanned systems more broadly than they do now.

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.

If one envisages the operational environment in distributed terms, this means that various types of sea bases, ranging from large deck carriers to various types of Maritime Sealift Command ships, along with expeditionary bases, or FARPs or FOBS, will need to be connected into a combined combat force.

To establish expeditionary bases, it is crucial to be able to set them up, operate and to leave such a base rapidly or in an expeditionary manner (sorry for the pun). This will be virtually impossible to do without heavy lift, and vertical heavy lift, specifically.

Put in other terms, the new strategic environment requires new operating concepts; and in those operating concepts, the CH-53K provides significant requisite capabilities.

The ability to evolve into the future is why I highlighted the core point of how very different the CH-53K is with its legacy predecessor.

That is why I raised the point that perhaps it would have been better to call this a CH-55 rather than a CH-53.

This is the conclusion I reached when making the CH-55 argument.

“The CH-53K sets the standard and is the 1st and only true 21st Century Heavy Lift Helicopter.

To be more specific, the current heavy / upper medium lift cargo helicopters that the CH-53K replaces—legacy Chinook, CH-53 A/D/G Sea Stallion, CH-53E Super Stallion and their engines—were literally designed in the mid-20th century.

“In the more than half century that has elapsed between the design of these legacy aircraft and the first flight of the CH-53K in 2015, there have been significant advancements in helicopter design and manufacturing. The CH-53K is superior to its predecessors, not by engineering miracles, but by over a half century of steady engineering and technology progress that was designed and incorporated into the CH-53K from the ground up.

“The King Stallion is a totally new helicopter that leapfrogs the CH-53E design to improve operational capability, interoperability, reliability, maintainability, survivability, and cost of ownership.”

AS Germany considers its vertical lift options, the CH-53K offers real advantages to provide a platform as part of the future evolution of a force which needs to be designed to fight forward.

With the shaping of a new force structure within the context of the current and projected security context for Germany, it makes sense that each new platform or program be made with regard to where Germany is headed in terms of its 21st century strategic situation, and not be limited by the thinking of the inner-German defense period.

Featured Photo: The CH-53K King Stallion successfully plugs into a funnel-shaped drogue towed behind a KC-130J during aerial refueling wake testing over the Chesapeake Bay. Photo by Dane Wiedmann.