The USMC's New CH-53K King Stallion Is One Royally Expensive Helicopter

Meet the most expensive helicopter in the world.

Sikorsky

The USMC's much needed replacement for the notoriously unreliable CH-53E Super Stallion heavy-lift helicopter has had its fair share of issues. But now as the CH-53K accelerates its flight testing, its price tag is what's most concerning—costing a projected $122 million per helicopter. Yes, this is nearly the same unit price as the F-35B, the Joint Strike Fighter variant intended to replace the Marine Corps Harriers and and hundreds of their Hornets. 

The thing is, the USMC, once known for "getting more done with less," has been aiming to have its air arm transform into an all high-end, "silver bullet"-technology equipped force. Case in point, the backbone of their helicopter fleet isn't even a helicopter at all, it's a tilt-rotor airplane—the MV-22 Osprey. Although the King Stallion's price tag may seem outrageous, the USMC has spent tens of billions of dollars equipping itself with an all Osprey medium-lift "helicopter" fleet. Each Osprey, even after hundreds have been built, costs roughly $72 million each, and whereas the King Stallion is an absolutely necessary procurement item, the Osprey was a luxury the USMC chose to pursue. The service could have bought roughly three medium-lift helicopters for same price of a single MV-22. 

DoDBuzz.com reports that the decades-old CH-53E Super Stallion, the progenitor of the CH-53K, cost roughly $41 million in today's dollars. But considering the capability that the CH-53K brings to the table and how badly it's needed—not to mention the high cost of an Osprey—its price tag is a little easier to swallow. Just like most new military aircraft, the first examples cost the most, with the unit cost usually dropping fairly dramatically as the system enters full rate production. In total, the USMC looks to buy 200 CH-53Ks. Lieutenant General Gary Thomas stated that the cost per King Stallion will drop below $89 million once the helicopters enter full rate production around the turn of the decade—that is, if everything goes as planned.

Sikorsky

As for what Lockheed (which now owns Sikorsky) says on the issue, spokesperson Erin Cox told Military.com:

“The CH-53K heavy-lift helicopter, as previously known and reported, overcame developmental issues as are common with new, highly complex programs and is now completely  on track and scheduled for Milestone C review leading to initial low rate production... The program is performing extremely well.”

Although the USMC may be stuck paying whatever it has to when it comes to replacing its Super Stallions, the fact that the military branch seems to only settle for the most expensive flying machines is drawing ire from Congress. Niki Tsongus, who is a ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, made her concerns clear during a recent hearing, stating:

“While the Marine Corps certainly has a need for aircraft of many types, the ratio of spending on aircraft compared to ground equipment is striking. The Fiscal Year 2017 budget request was no exception to this trend: in it the Marine Corps requested approximately $1.5 billion for procurement of ground equipment and ammunition, however in the same president’s budget it requested $5.3 billion for just five aircraft programs: the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, the CH-53K King Stallion helicopter, the V-22 Osprey, the AH-1 attack helicopter and the KC-130 refueler... While the individual aircraft programs in question are likely very important when taken individually, the scale of the imbalance, more than three to one in just this fiscal year, suggests that upgrading aircraft is currently valued higher than upgrading ground equipment. I have some concerns about this ratio of spending on aircraft versus ground equipment, given the Marine Corps’ mission to be the premiere force in readiness and the historical reliance that the nation has placed on the Marine Corps’ role in ground combat.”

The numbers are striking, and considering USMC air elements are supposed to exist primarily to support the Marine rifleman on the ground, it all does seem quite out of whack, but this is really nothing new. The USMC could have replaced at least a portion of their falling apart Hornets with Super Hornets, but instead they waited for the top-of-the-line stealth fighter and would take nothing less. Splitting up the MV-22 buy with an aircraft like the S-92 would have also saved billions that could have been redirected to support new equipment purchases for the USMC's ground forces. For the vast majority of missions, an MV-22's capability is a luxury, but one that many head-honchos within the Marine Corps will defend vehemently.

Lieutenant General Gary Thomas stated to the committee the following to justify the split:

“We are a light general purpose force. One of the things that gives the Marine Corps an advantage on the battlefield is its mobility and its fires. Much of that comes from aviation... The ground side, in terms of fires, mobility, those are equally as important, but if we were just to look relatively how we’re investing across aviation and ground, without looking at the cost, although there are significant differences there, but in terms of capability and capacity, we think we’re balanced.” 

Still, considering the age of many of the USMC's ground/amphibous vehicles, it is clear that the fiscal priority has been placed overwhelmingly on the aerial side of the USMC's combat equation—possibly to an extent that is it actually illogical and "un-balanced" so to speak

The CH-53K's sticker price may be a shocker, but the bottom-line is that USMC has had many chances to rationalize their spending on aerial programs and has chosen a "no compromise" route instead. As such, there are few areas within their aviation plans left to modify in order to save money and invest in more basic needs. The CH-53K is a must have, its heavy-lifting capabilities are essential to the USMC's mission, and there is really no alternative to the type available off the shelf. So the F-35 may be an interesting comparison price-wise, but they are apples and oranges when it comes to the basic needs of the Corps. 

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com