Comparing Chinook to the CH-53K: The German Case

By Robbin Laird

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 thier 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 refuelable; the Chinook is not.

And the CH-53 K’s air refuelable 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 integrateable 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.

As I wrote earlier:

For Germany, the K clearly would be part of how they might adjust flexibility to the strategic shift facing the liberal democracies in dealing with the Russians.

For example, Germany needs to rapidly reinforce their Baltic brigade or move forces forward to reinforce Poland in a crisis.

Compared to Chinook, the K goes further, faster and brings a significantly greater combat load to the fight rapidly.

And flying with the A400 M or the C-130J, the ability to carry standard pallets means a rapid movement of cargo from an airlifter to the K to move support within an area of interest.

And the K is changing as well the meaning of what a support helo really is.

It is in an information or C2 asset through the nature of the cockpit and how information can be managed within the cockpit or delivered to the combat soldiers onboard the aircraft.

This means that for Germany, the K is already FCAS enabled, or able to operate in a combat cloud in a way certainly neither the E nor the Chinook can do.

The FCAS enabled part is also crucial for Germany.

The FCAS approach is forward leaning and ultimately rests on shaping the networks which enable an integratable force. It is not about simply building a replacement combat aircraft; it is about building out a system of networks which can able an integratable force to work effectively together. Simply buying legacy systems and leaving networked capabilities to show up in a future FCAS really misses the point; integratability has to be built in which it clearly is with the CH-53K.

It is a down payment on building out the kind of networked force Germany has committed itself too with its FCAS commitment.  Put in other terms, platform choices should be considered as well from the vantage point of whether or not that platform choice advances the integratable force able to move rapidly to the point of attack or defense or not.

From this standpoint the choice is clear: The Chinook represents the Cold War past; the CH-53K the future of the integratable force.

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. April, 6, 2020. 

For the full report, see the following:

Core German Platform Decisions: How to Evaluate the Options?