GAO recommends CH-53K production cap until testing is complete

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has recommended that the US Navy caps the production of Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallion helicopters to six aircraft per year until the platform completes initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E).

This recommendation came from a GAO report, which was published on March 4. In which, the office cited significant cost overruns and schedule delays as the reason for the recommended cap on the production of the new heavy-lift transport helicopter.

“We found the CH-53K schedule doesn’t full meet best practices for developing and keeping reliable project schedules. Also, overlap between testing and buying larger numbers of helicopters means problems revealed during testing would have to be fixed on more helicopters already built. Such retrofits are costly,” the GAO said.

CH-53K [Lockheed Martin]
A CH-53K King Stallion comes in to land after completing a test flight in 2016. The US Navy plans to procure 200 examples to replace the US Marine Corps' (USMC's) ageing Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion heavy-lift transport helicopter fleet. Lockheed Martin

Development of the King Stallion was launched in 2005, having an initial operational capability (IOC) date that was originally penned for 2018. In December 2015, it was decided that full-rate production would be delayed until November 2022 due to the identification of technical issues with the platform during early testing. The GAO states that costs associated with the CH-53K’s development have increased by almost US$15.3bn since the programme began, citing the technical issues and a procurement increase from 156 helicopters to 200 as the reason behind the rising costs.

The GAO called the current CH-53K testing and procurement schedule “unreliable,” adding that it indicates “there is more flexibility in the schedule than it truly has, which can affect the ability to change allocated resources appropriately to meet schedule milestones.” It adds that the programme risks further cost increases due to the concurrency of testing and procurement.

“Concurrency, coupled with plans for increased numbers of helicopters to be produced, beyond the six per year currently being built, could result in costly retrofits to helicopters built before the completion of operational testing. This testing will provide decision makers [with] needed information on the resolution of the technical issues facing the programme,” it said.

As per current plans, the US Navy aims to have ordered 38 examples of the King Stallion by the end of Fiscal Year 2022 (FY22), with orders for seven and 11 aircraft expected in FY21 and FY22, respectively. The GAO’s recommendation would see the yearly production of CH-53Ks capped at six until the platform has passed the IOT&E process, which is scheduled for completion in FY22.