The U.S. Marine Corps is replacing
its aging CH-53E transport helicopters with a new model, the CH-53K. These will
cost $27 million each, for a buy of 146 helicopters.
The Marine Corps currently operates a number of
different helicopters and for years have been planning to shrink the number of
types to save on operational and procurement costs. Medium and heavy lift
helicopters such as the CH-46E (over 200 in use) and the CH-53 A/D (about 70)
were originally to be replaced by 348 V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft. But
delays in that program, and a reduction in the number of V-22s to be
built, led to the CH-53K.
The CH-53E remains one of the few heavy lift
helicopters that can operate in the high altitudes in Afghanistan, and they
have been heavily used there. The CH-53Es average age is fifteen years, and
over 3,000 flight hours. They require 44 man hours of maintenance, for each
hour in the air. As a result, it costs about $20,000 for each flight hour.
CH-53Es are good for about 6,000 flight hours, before metal fatigue makes them
too dangerous to fly.
At the present rate of use, the Marines will begin
running out of heavy-lift helicopters by 2012. Thus the decision to put the
CH-53 back into production in the next five or six years, as the CH-53K. The
new model will be sixteen percent heavier (at 42.3 tons) than the CH-53E and be
able to carry nearly twice as much (13.5 tons). The CH-53K will be much easier
to maintain, and cost about half as much, per flight hour, to operate. But the
first one won't enter service for another eight years, but development is
expected to be a lot more predictable than it was for the MV-22.