Boeing/Sikorsky compete for German CH-53G replacement

US-based manufacturers Boeing Defense and Sikorsky have placed bids to provide the Bundeswehr (German Armed Forces) with its next-generation heavy-lift helicopter.

The bids are in response to Germany’s Schwerer Transporthubschrauber (STH) – otherwise known as the New Heavy Lift Helicopter programme – invitation to tender, which was issued in June 2019. Both Boeing and Sikorsky announced their participation on January 13, 2020, with the CH-47F Chinook and CH-53K King Stallion respectively.

Key Publishing’s AirForces Intelligence reports that Germany officially began its search for a new heavy-lift transport helicopter in February 2019. The STH seeks a replacement the country’s ageing fleet of 80 CH-53G/GA/GS helicopters that will be retired by 2025. The type – formerly operated by the Deutsches Heer (German Army) before its operations were transferred to the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) under Hubschraubergeschwader 63 (HSG64) in January 2013 – entered service in 1969.

CH-53G [USAF/A1C Chris Massey]
A Luftwaffe CH-53GS in flight during Angel Thunder 2015. The exercise - which took place in June that year - is the largest personnel recovery exercise in the world. USAF/A1C Chris Massey 

The tender – published by the Bundesamt für Ausrüstung, Informationstechnik und Nutzung der Bundeswehr (BAAINBw/Federal Office for Equipment, Information Technology and Use of the Federal Armed Forces) – noted that the desired platform should be capable of transporting personnel and equipment, having a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 20 tonnes. The final contract award is expected in 2021 and will be worth roughly US$6.4bn (€5.7bn) for between 44 and 60 aircraft to be fielded by the Luftwaffe, with deliveries taking place between 2023 and 2031.

Boeing’s CH-47F Chinook tandem-rotor helicopter is the smaller of the two options, but the company looks to use the platform’s strong European presence to provide the Bundeswehr with an aircraft that is interoperable with those employed by other NATO member nations – including Canada, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Turkey, the UK and the US.

Michael Hostetter, vice president of Boeing Defense, Space and Security in Germany, said: “The H-47 Chinook is a one of a kind platform capable of performing missions that other helicopters cannot. It is a proven multi-mission heavy lift helicopter with advanced technology that meets the German requirements."

The CH-47 sees its origins in the late-1950s, when the US Army sought a replacement for the Sikorsky CH-37 Mojave. The Chinook saw its operational combat debut during the Vietnam War, where it proved its worth. Through technological upgrades, the integration of new systems and ongoing export success has kept the Chinook relevant and at the capable to tackle new challenges well into the 21st century. Boeing boasts “there are more than 950 Chinook aircraft operating in 20 countries” and that it will provide low operating and acquisition costs with a technology roadmap to ensure its relevance for decades.

Dr Michael Haidinger, president of Boeing Germany, said: “We are committed to having the sustainment and training as well as parts of the production done in Germany… We will continue to build on and expand our German industry team for the H-47 Chinook [STS] competition. In addition, we are committed to bringing high end engineering and production opportunities from across the Boeing enterprise to German industry."

CH-47F [Boeing Defense] #1
A graphic depicting a CH-47F in Luftwaffe colours - the helicopter looks like it will feature an air-to-air refuelling capability with a probe, which sticks out from the bottom left of the forward fuselage. Boeing Defense

Sikorsky – which has teamed up with Germany-based Rheinmetall – has proposed its new CH-53K King Stallion, the latest member of the venerable Sea Stallion family. The Sikorsky-led industry team features ten German companies aside from Rheinmetall, including Autoflug GmbH, Collins Aerospace, Hydro Systems KG and MTU Aero Engines. In November 2019, Rheinmentall announced that it will open a CH-53K logistics and fleet management centre at Leipzig/Halle Airport, Schkeuditz, in coordination with Sikorsky if the platform is selected by the Bundeswehr. 

Beth Parcella, Sikorsky’s CH-53K International Business Development Director, said: “Our entire team is pleased to offer the CH-53K: the most efficient, capable and intelligent helicopter that will deliver the best long-term value to the Bundeswehr through the 21st century”. She added that its important “to build a strong German industrial team early on and to [capitalise] on the know-how of the German teammates for the STH project."

The company boasts that the CH-53K will bring long-term value to the Bundeswehr in comparison to its competitor – the CH-47 – with regards to life-cycle costs, mission requirements and capability. It features an air-to-air refuelling capability operable with the Lockheed Martin KC-130J – in which the Luftwaffe is acquiring three examples. The platform itself employs a digital flight control system and avionics, enabling future MOSA-based upgrades and built-in sensors allow for the aircraft to predict and prevent maintenance problems at an early stage in order to reduce the platforms time in maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) and boosting its operational availability rates. The company adds that it will be interoperable with fixed-wing transports operated by the Luftwaffe – predominantly the Airbus A400M and C-130J Super Hercules – with its employment of air transport pallets which allows for quicker cargo handling and allows for it to be delivered to areas where these aircraft cannot land. The King Stallion is a complete redesign of the CH-53E, with improved engines, a composite rotor blade system and a new cockpit layout. It is also wider than its predecessor, giving it the capacity to fit a Humvee inside. 

The CH-53K furthers more than 50 years of a matured manufacturing process and operational success with US and international forces (notably Germany and Israel). The aircraft has been under order by the US Marine Corps (USMC) to replace its CH-53E Super Stallions for some time and Israel are looking to replace its ageing CH-53 in a similar way to Germany. The King Stallion has yet to earn any export orders.

CH-53K [Lockheed Martin] #1
The Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallion in-flight. Lockheed Martin

However, the development of the CH-53K has not been smooth, plagued with delays and problems that Sikorsky have had to handle. As we enter a new decade, some problems still cloud the King Stallion, which could ultimately prevent it from taking its throne in Germany. The biggest issue for Sikorsky last year was the CH-53K’s gas re-ingestion problem, something which caused Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) to get involved to help find a solution. During testing in 2018, it was discovered that exhaust gases from the number 1 and 2 engines were being re-ingested by the CH-53K’s number 2 engine. The problem can cause poor engine performance, overheating and stalls and result in increased lifecycle costs for the engines. The discovery resulted in additional testing, delayed development and caused the program to be restructured.

The US Navy and Sikorsky Aircraft have now agreed on a design change for the exhaust gas re-ingestion problem. To alleviate the problem, modifications were made to the number 1 engine’s exhaust duct and air flow into engine bays was increased, heat shields were added and minor changes were made to the engine software. Following modifications to the second prototype CH-53K, four test flights and nearly 13 hours of flight-testing validated that modification as the solution to the problem. Four CH-53K test helicopters were scheduled to receive the modifications by the end of 2020, ensuring that the King Stallion could undergo its first sea trials this year and allow initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) to start in early 2021.

Alongside additional structural/mechanical problems, and development falling behind – with an original initial operational capability (IOC) set for 2015 – the USMC’s plan to acquire 200 examples is now being reconsidered, with the purchase of fewer aircraft being an option.

In the meantime, it is expected that this competition – along with Germany’s Tornado ECR replacement programme – will feature prominently at the ILA Berlin Air Show in May.