Israel and the CH-53K: The Reserves and Training Dimension for Force Generation

By Robbin Laird

Recently, the IDF announced that they had chosen the CH-53K to replace their legacy CH-53s.

“The decision to purchase new Sa’ar transport helicopters for the Air Force, after decades, is a significant step in building the IDF’s power, and essential for performing a wide range of operational tasks as routine and in combat,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said in a statement.

An underlying factor in the IDF’s calculations has been the key role which reserves play in force mobilization and how the new aircraft’s relative ease of flight and the capabilities of the training simulators to both learn and refresh are key considerations for force generation and mobilization.

It is well known that Israel is a mobilization nation. It is also well known that reserves are a key part of the Israel capability to defend itself.

The challenge with using reserves is keeping them at the skill levels needed when operations demand their contribution.  With newer systems, in many cases, come enhanced usability so to speak. The CH-53K is a whole new baseline for heavy lift, one which uses digital systems to make it much easier to operate. Unlike legacy mechanical systems, the CH-53K is a fly by wire system with significant inputs from digital systems onboard to operate the aircraft.

This ease of use by front line combat operators becomes a keyway to ensure that performance of reserves is at a higher standard than if simply based on the pilot’s own unassisted operating skills. The machine capability built into the aircraft provides for a higher standard of performance than a human pilot unaided can achieve. For the front-line user, this allows for an expanded operational envelope; for the reservist called up to duty, it may mean survival in operating an aircraft with significant crew or cargo onboard.

Put in simple terms, the fly by wire system allows the pilot to operate the aircraft in difficult environments by using systems like the automatic hover mode which operates the aircraft at levels that in a legacy system would be demanding for even the most experienced pilot. With the K, this is delivered by the machine.

In various interviews with CH-53K operators, the importance of fly by wire to expanding the operational situation for the pilot-co-pilot team has been highlighted. But what this system allows is for those familiar to the aircraft but in a reserve capability where flying it is not a frequent experience to also operate the aircraft with a higher standard of effectiveness and safety

Let me highlight some of the comments about the fly-by wire system on the CH-53K and its importance which I have written about earlier.

According to Colonel Jack Perrin Program Manager, PMA-261 H53 Heavy Lift Helicopters, US Naval Air Systems Command at Pax River Naval Air Station.

“I would tell you the 53K is what I would call the 5th generation or the leading generation of heavy lift helicopters for all helicopters. It is fly by wire it has the power and speed that you really need in a helicopter and really executes its mission extremely well.” He put a key point very well which pilots of the CH-53K have emphasized: “The pilots can put the aircraft where they need to in the combat environment.” This is about the ability to work in degraded environments and with the fly by wire and other digital systems are able to put that aircraft exactly where the optimal location in the combat environment.”

According to an August 21, 2020 release by Naval Air Station Patuxent River, the CH-53K sea trials went extremely well in June 2020, and the handling qualities of the aircraft was a key reason this was so.

Foxton praised the CH-53K’s performance, noting that the responsive and well-tuned fly-by-wire controls make shipboard landings much easier and more precise than is possible with many other helicopters. “It’s a real testament to the stability of the aircraft,” Foxton said.

A further comment from the sea trials also underscored the aircraft’s handling capabilities:

A key feature of the King Stallion compared to the CH-53E Super Stallion – aside from being able to lift more – is that it’s much easier to operate due to the fly-by-wire flight control system.

Perrin noted the ease of operations during the April 6 aerial refueling test with a KC-130 tanker, saying, “it’s usually a pretty difficult, demanding task, but the 53K handled that extremely well and we had very good handling qualities out of that.”

During sea trials, the colonel added, “the handling qualities of the aircraft at the ship were excellent. All the initial pilot feedback has been that the handling qualities of the 53K on all spots, day, night, in [night vision goggles], was very very good. They were all very impressed … (with) how much easier it was for the pilot to actually come back and land on the ship because of the flight control system, because of the fly-by-wire system on the 53K, which is very good….”

Another important aspect of the CH-53K compared to legacy systems which makes it a great aircraft for reserves to be able to enter the force and provide for force augmentation or mobilization is its new flight simulators.

With a digital aircraft, software upgradeability goes on all the time.

How do I know that I as a reserve CH-53K pilot know what the latest software on my aircraft can do?

One answer is given by the digital simulators, which of course need to have concurrent modernization with the operational aircraft themselves.

I have been in the first flight simulator at a Marine Corps base, namely, New River Air Station. After I did so, and while visiting the air station, I wrote this piece on December 3, 2020 to highlight what I saw and what I experienced.

Yesterday, during my visit to New River, I experienced flying in the cockpit of the Marine Corps’ latest key air capability, the CH-53K.  I was in the cockpit with LtCol Luke “Amber” Frank, the VMX-1 Detachment OIC. He is a very experienced  Marine Corps pilot having flown virtually every type of rotorcraft the Marine Corps has, including being a presidential pilot as well.

He is experienced; obviously I am not.

So where did this flight happen?

In the new flight simulator which has been built and is operating at VMX-1.

The man-machine working relationship is a central part of the flight experience, with new capabilities crucial to mission success built around key man-machine capabilities.

A central one is the ability of the aircraft to hover with the automatic system, which allows pilots to operate in very degraded operating conditions to put down their aircraft at desired locations to deliver their payloads.

During our flight, in spite of the bright clear but cold day outside, we experienced several difficult landings in degraded conditions, dust storms, turbulence, and various challenging situations to land the aircraft.

Why does this matter in terms of concepts of operations?

This means that the crew can deliver the payload, Marines or cargo, to the area which is desired in terms of commander’s intent with regard to the landing zone selected for maximum combat effectiveness.

If one is inserting a force to support an effort to destroy key enemy capabilities, being able to take the right kind of situational awareness and land EXACTLY where the commander has determined the force could have the highest combat effect is a core combat capability with tactical and even potentially strategic effect.

This is how a capability within a new aircraft translates into enhanced probability for combat success.

And if you are an allied military which needs capability to insert force rapidly in special operations environment, the CH-53K could be a game changing capability for force insertion.

 In short, if you rely on reserves as a key part of force structure capabilities and rely on mobilization as part of your force augmentation strategy, it is crucial to have platforms which can be re-learned rapidly prior to operating them in an operational situation.

Even more important, if you have a man-machine capability such as fly by wire, then the capabilities of those pilots who do not regularly operate the aircraft, their own safety, reliability and performance standards go up.

And with regard to a heavy lift helicopter, many lives are at stake.

Featured Photo: CH-53K in notional IDF colors.