The CH-53K and Distributed Concepts of Operations

By Robbin Laird

I have had the opportunity to observe three new air systems come into the USMC or the joint force and to watch how those air systems altered the concept of operations of the force. There has been a common aspect of their impact. The new air system was so different from what it replaced that until the eco system within which it worked was changed and the concept of operations were altered to take advantage of its new capabilities, the service was not able to get full value of its new capability.

“It takes time,” commented one Marine I interviewed in 2010 about the impact of the Osprey. It has even been more difficult for the fifth-generation aircraft because they look like a tactical aircraft but really are not anything like a legacy aircraft, that is why I coined the phrase that the F-35 was a wolfpack “flying combat system” rather than a tactical aircraft.

Now the CH-53K has arrived for the USMC and for the joint and allied forces. The co-ops to facilitate the full use of the aircraft are unfolding as the Navy, Marine Corps and the Air Force undergo a shift to distributed operations. And these operations simply will not work without effective logistical enablers enabling the distributed forces to be sustained at the point of combat relevance.

Yet the CH-53K has a problem which the other two aircraft did not have – no one would confuse an Osprey with a CH-46 or an F-35B with a Harrier. But the CH-53K looks similar to the CH-53D and E it replaces. That is why I wrote the piece which I did a couple of years ago in which I suggested it might be better if it had been called a CH-55. And the H-53 Heavy Lift Helicopters Program Manager (PMA-261), Colonel Kate Fleeger, U.S. Marine Corps agreed with me. As we discussed in my visit to Pax River earlier this year:

“We discussed how the naming of the helicopter as a CH-53 tends to obscure how different the CH-53K is from the CH-53E. I earlier wrote a piece entitled What if it was called the “CH-55? Transformation in the Vertical Heavy Lift Fleet” to underscore this point. She agreed: “I have argued we shouldn’t have used the numbers 53.”

“This is true on two levels. The first level is that of performance and capability for the heavy lift mission as generally understood. The second level is the digital backbone of the CH-53K which makes the platform a key element in the distributed integratable force enabled by the kill web.

“The first aspect was well laid out during a visit to VMX-1 in 2020 and a discussion with Lt. Col. Frank. He stated during that visit the following: “I’ve started in the Ch-53D in 2004, they’re my first love. I’ll always love them. They were much harder to fly. And the ease of flying this, the flight control system is probably the biggest game changer for the 53 community.

“We’re not used to anything like this. It’s very intuitive. It can be as hands off as you know, a brand-new Tesla, you can close your eyes, set the autopilot and fly across country. Obviously, you wouldn’t do that in a tactical environment, but it does reduce your workload, reduces your stress. And in precision hover areas, whether it’s night under low light conditions, under NVGs, in the confines of a tight landing zone, we have the ability to hit position hold in the 53 K and have the aircraft maintain pretty much within one foot of its intended hover point, one foot forward, lateral and AFT, and then one foot of vertical elevation change.

“It will maintain that hover until the end of the time if required. that’s very, very stress relieving for us when landing in degraded visual environments. Our goal at VMX-1 is to create tactics that employ that system effectively. Some communities struggle with how they use the automation, do they let the automation do everything? Do they let the pilots do everything? How to work the balance? We’re working on a hybrid where the pilots can most effectively leverage automation.

“If you know you’re coming into a brownout situation or degraded visual environment, you engage the automation at a point right before the dust envelops you. And then in the 53-K, you can continue flying with the automation engaged. You continue flying with the automation engaged, and you can override it, but as soon as you stop moving the controls, it will take your inputs, estimate what you wanted and keep the aircraft in its position.

“It’s a very intuitive flight control system, and it blends very well with the pilot and the computers. It allows you to override the computer. And then the second that you stop overriding it, the computer takes back over without any further pilot input. That’s probably the biggest game changer for our community.”

“The second aspect was a key part of the discussion with Col. Fleeger. She emphasized the digital backbone built into the aircraft, and its ability to operate within a distributed force leveraging that force’s digital systems and its ability to contribute to that overall digital capability as well.

“And when it comes to connectivity, the CH-53K is a key enabler for distributed logistics capability for the USMC and for the joint force.  This is how she put it: “The CH-53K is a key element in the logistical backbone for the distributed force for the Marine Corps – especially with the increasing emphasis on the importance of operating from a diversity of unimproved landing zones, as opposed to using bases and runways.”

Whether it be intra-theater lift in the Pacific or enabling and empowering expeditionary basing, the CH-53K is the right aircraft at the right time. I have recently published a new book about the aircraft and its synergy with distributed concepts of operations. I recommend the reader to read this book for a comprehensive look at how this third new system I have observed although it looks like its ancestor is following a similar path to the Osprey and the F-35B in enabling significant innovation in the concept of operations for the Navy-Marine Corps team.

As the noted naval analyst and novelist, George Galdorisi noted in his review: “This helicopter has been the mainstay of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps for many years. Now, with an updated and upgraded model as part of the military arsenal, Robbin Laird provides an insider’s look at this monster of a helicopter.”