Recently, I went to Pax River Naval Air Station to get an update on the CH-53K program from Colonel Jack Perrin, Program Manager, PMA-261 H53 Heavy Lift Helicopters, US Naval Air Systems Command at Pax River Naval Air Station.
We started by discussing, the process of the team in resolving an engine problem which needed to get solved to move the program forward.
Col. Perrin underscored that after significant numbers of flight tests and working with the mature aircraft, a problem was identified which was considered a key choke point to moving forward more rapidly to achieve initial operating capacity of the aircraft.
The engine is working very well and the airframe and aircraft over all have performed well. The problem identified after hours of flight testing was that the integration between the engine and the aircraft needed to be improved.
According to Perrin, a problem facing three engine helicopters is exhaust gas coming into the aircraft.
Exhaust gas re-ingestion (EGR). EGR occurs when the hot engine gasses are ingested back into the system and can cause increased life-cycle costs, poor engine performance and degradation, as well as time-on-wing decreases, engine overheating and even stalls.
EGR is an issue for all three-engine helicopters, to include the CH-53E Super Stallion. The program office was determined to find a production solution for the CH-53K, as was done for the CH-53E.
What needed to be fixed was to find a way to eliminate this problem on the CH-53K.
Obviously, this is a problem for flight operations, but also, exhaust gases were affecting the airframe as well.
According to Colonel Perrin, “The CH-53E is only about 13% composites; the CH-53K is about 70%, and exhaust gases affecting the air frame would create maintenance problems over time.”
He underscored that to fix the problem and to be better able to bring the aircraft to IOC, they used an unprecedented coming-together of highly skilled engineers with a variety of expertise to mitigate an ongoing engine issue for the CH-53K King Stallion, including industry, the Marines and government.
They used advanced computer modelling to come up with a range of solutions and then narrowed down to a particular solution which was then implemented.
And after testing, this solution was successful which allowed putting the aircraft back on track for the projected IOC date.
The fix is important; but also, the way in which it has been done – integrating Marines, with government and industry.
The way the solution has been reached provides a solid foundation for completing the way ahead to IOC.
The Launch of the CH-53K is Not Like the Osprey
I had the opportunity to see the USMC introduce the Osprey and to watch its evolution since that time. It has had a significant impact on Marine Corps operations and has laid the foundation for the next generation distributed integratable operations.
But when it was launched, it was a time of pioneering with digital maintenance and finding ways to maintaining the new tiltrotor technology. It is very different for the CH-53K, because much of the preparation for IOC has been a focus upon the maintainability of the aircraft.
I have visited the log demo for the CH-53K team located at New River Marine Corps Air Station and have seen the key role which VMX-1 located there is having in shaping a credible approach to maintaining the aircraft before it is coming into Marine Corps operations.
According to Col. Perrin, the VMX-1 team comes regularly to Pax River to work on preparing for the operational launch of the aircraft and the working relationship between the test, maintenance and industrial teams is providing a solid foundation for the introduction of a much more mature aircraft in the case of the CH-53K than was able to be done at the time of the launch of the Osprey.
This is certainly good news, but this also creates a problem.
The CH-53K which will enter service in the next couple of years is not at the equivalent point of maturity as when the Osprey entered the service. It is significantly advanced in terms of its maturation, but the challenge will be for this to be recognized so that numbers of the aircraft can be ramped up and introduced more rapidly into the force than the Osprey experience.
A New Capability for a New Strategic Environment
The Commandant’s Guidance highlighted the nature of the new strategic environment and the importance of distributed operations leveraging both sea-basing and expeditionary or mobile basing.
It is clear that heavy lift is a key enabler of such a concept of operations.
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.
And this Marine Corps-Navy capability is suggestive of a broader set of considerations for the Army and the Air Force.
If Expeditionary Basing is crucial, certainly the CH-53K could provide capabilities for the Army and the Air Force, to compliment fixed wing lift aircraft.
And in many cases, only a vertical lift support capability will be able to do the job.
Remember the USAF flies the CV-22s and if they are part of the distributed fight and requiring expeditionary basing, it may be the case that such a base can be set up and sustained only by vertical heavy lift.
Both considerations, how to cross-operate across the seabase and the expeditionary base, and the question of whether vertical heavy lift is now becoming a strategic asset, will be dealt with in later pieces.
But for now, the core point is simple – the K needs to come into the USMC-Navy team as soon as possible to enable the shift in concepts of operations required to deal with the new strategic environment.
And if the CH-53K became part of the joint team, the question of cost is very manageable.
By producing more aircraft, the cost curve comes down. And shaping a more effective cost curve is a significant challenge which the program is addressing.
Colonel Jack D. Perrin, United States Marine Corps
Colonel Jack Perrin is a native of Cherokee, Iowa, and a 1994 graduate of the United States Naval Academy with a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics. Upon completion of The Basic School he attended flight training in Pensacola, Florida, where he earned his wings of gold in 1996. Selected to fly the Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion, his next duty station was at HMT-302, the CH-53E Fleet Replacement Squadron in Jacksonville, North Carolina.
Col. Perrin’s first fleet duty station was in Tustin, California, in 1997 where he joined Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH)-466, the “Wolfpack.” He completed three deployments; attached to HMM(REIN)-163 as part of the 15th MEU in 1998, as the HMH-466 Maintenance Officer in Okinawa, Japan, in 2000-2001, and attached to HMM(REIN)-166 deploying with the 11th MEU in 2002. He completed the Weapons and Tactics Instructor course in 2001 and was the squadron tactics and training officer from 2001-2002.
In December 2002, Col. Perrin transferred to Marine Weapons and Tactics Squadron-1 (MAWTS-1) assuming the duties as an H-53 MAWTS instructor. He deployed in January of 2003 with MAG-16 in support of OIF-1. Selected for Naval Test Pilot School, he graduated in December 2005 and joined the Rotary Wing Test Squadron HX-21. As a developmental test pilot, Col. Perrin supported the early development of the CH-53K, and executed the development and integration of the DIRCM system, Blue Force Tracker, and IMDS on the CH-53E. He was selected as the MCAA John Glenn Test Pilot of the Year in 2008. He earned a Master of Science degree in Systems Engineering Technical Management from Johns Hopkins University in 2008.
Selected to become an Acquisition Professional (8059) in 2009, he joined PMA-261 as the Class Desk, leading the CH-53K engineering department through Critical Design Review in 2010. From January to July 2011 he was DPEO Operations for PEO(A). He joined PMA-274 Presidential Helicopter Program Office as the Level 1 Team Lead for the Presidential Helicopter Replacement Program (VXX) in July of 2011. Following VH-92A contract award in 2014, Col. Perrin returned to PMA-261 to assume the duties as the Level 1 Team Lead for the CH-53K program until departing for Top Level School in 2015. He earned a Master of Science degree from the Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy in 2016. He commanded DCMA Sikorsky Aircraft from August 2016 to June 2018. Col. Perrin is currently the Heavy Lift Helicopter Program Manager (PMA-261) for NAVAIR at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland.
Col. Perrin has accrued more than 3150 flight hours in over 30 different type fixed-wing and rotary- wing aircraft. His personal decorations include the Defense Superior Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal with Gold Star, Marine Corps Commendation Medal with Silver Star and the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal.