Boeing and Lockheed Martin are competing to supply a new generation of heavy lift helicopters to two of America’s most important allies.
The allies are Germany and Israel, which both have an urgent need to replace fleets of CH-53D helicopters that have grown decrepit with age. The helicopters were built by Connecticut-based Sikorsky long before it became a part of Lockheed Martin.
That makes Lockheed Martin the incumbent supplier of heavy lift helicopters to both countries, and simply on that basis you would expect Lockheed to have an advantage in the competition.
Military aircraft that have been operating for many years tend to develop a constituency in their home services that prefers sticking with what it knows, so Lockheed Martin has a shot at selling a much improved “K” variant of CH-53 called King Stallion to both Germany and Israel.
The German solicitation alone is worth many billions of dollars, encompassing the purchase of 44-60 aircraft (depending on capabilities) plus 30 years of life-cycle support. It would be a huge win for Sikorsky, which was acquired by Lockheed Martin largely due to the promise of King Stallion.
The main customer is the U.S. Marine Corps, which plans to use King Stallion to carry marines and their equipment to shore from amphibious warfare ships far beyond enemy missile range. Selling King Stallion to key allies would bolster the program’s revenue potential—perhaps opening the door to additional sales in Europe, Asia, and even to the U.S. Army.
However, Boeing, builder of the rival CH-47F twin-rotor Chinook, has other ideas. It thinks it can displace the CH-53 from both the German and Israeli markets by offering an upgraded version of its own heavy lifter that meets all customer performance requirements at considerably less cost.
Both companies contribute to my think tank, and that has given me unusual insight into their plans. I wrote a commentary on June 29 spelling out why Sikorsky thinks King Stallion is a game-changer, so now it is Boeing’s turn.
What follows is a summary of the pitch Boeing is making to foreign customers in the market for new heavy lift helicopters, based on a presentation prepared for the German government. It is, in effect, Boeing’s case for why the latest version of Chinook is a better value than King Stallion.
It’s a case the U.S. Marine Corps will never buy—the Marines have invested $7 billion in developing King Stallion and are absolutely committed to the program—but Boeing’s case just might fly with the allies.
The latest version of King Stallion was designed to be the heaviest lifter in helicopter history, capable of carrying the 11-ton Joint Light Tactical Vehicle in an external sling to distances of over a hundred miles. However, neither Germany nor Israel has plans to buy that vehicle. The Israelis don’t carry external sling loads at all because they slow the aircraft, making it more vulnerable. The Germans do, but Boeing says Chinook in its latest configuration will be able to lift all of the tactical vehicles in the German army that King Stallion can.
Although King Stallion is a bigger aircraft than Chinook, Boeing notes that the size of their cabins is virtually identical. In fact, it says that due to weight limits on the CH-53K’s wheels, the CH-47F can “oftentimes carry more weight internally than the CH-53K.” Since Germany and Israel do not conduct the kind of ship-to-shore maneuvers practiced by the U.S. Marine Corps, Boeing figures that the greater external lifting power of King Stallion isn’t worth the additional cost to either country.
That external lifting power is just one of the features that makes King Stallion a new aircraft, much different from earlier versions of the CH-53. But Boeing argues this is not necessarily a virtue because the CH-53K is so new that its future reliability and maintainability are not yet proven. It says there are 562 Chinooks currently operational in 20 countries, whereas there are only four test versions of King Stallion in existence and no operational track record to compare with Chinook.
The version of Chinook Boeing is offering is itself an upgrade—both helicopters sport “glass” cockpits built by the Collins Aerospace unit of Raytheon Technologies—but it does not represent the leap in performance from what came before that King Stallion does. Thus, there are uncertainties associated with the operation and sustainment of CH-53K that do not arise in the case of the CH-47F.
Boeing notes that Germany and Israel both have extensive plans to modify whichever helicopter they buy with indigenously-produced equipment for communications, electronic warfare and other functions. The company says that it has a long history of customizing Chinook to meet the unique configuration requirements of foreign buyers, but there is no such history for King Stallion. Other than the U.S. Marine Corps, Germany and Israel are the only operators of the CH-53, and the variants they own are nothing like the latest version.
One area where this creates risk is in certifying mods of the aircraft for flight safety. Germany in particular is looking for a heavy lift helicopter that has been formally certified by some recognized authority, preferably a civil authority. But a supplemental type certificate will be required if modifications of the baseline aircraft are extensive, and Chinook has a much more extensive track record in that regard than the CH-53 does.
Boeing contends that the cost of procuring and operating the latest version of Chinook is far below that of King Stallion. In an apples-to-apples comparison, it calculates that “CH-47F aircraft cost is about half the CH-53K.” The higher price-tag for King Stallion could be justified if it were a markedly better fit for German and Israeli performance requirements, or more reliable and maintainable, but Boeing doubts that a case for either claim could be made convincingly.
When it comes to the cost of actually operating the two helicopters, Boeing estimates that “CH-47F costs less than one half to fly per hour than a CH-53K.” Its presentation to the Germans suggests an average annual cost per flight hour for CH-47F at $10,600 versus nearly $42,000 per hour for King Stallion, based on U.S. government statistics and operating assumptions. Looking at maintenance alone (not counting manpower), it figures Chinook will cost $4,300 per flight hour compared with $25,100 for King Stallion.
If true, that disparity would have big budgetary consequences over the course of a multi-decade service life. The Germans will distill all such statistics into a spreadsheet comparing the two rotorcraft after issuing a request for proposals in the fall and likely pick a winner in spring of 2021. Israel’s approach will be somewhat different since, unlike the Germans, it will be buying its heavy lifters through the U.S. foreign military sales program. But it says it needs new helicopters operational by 2025, so it won’t be long before the winners in each competition are known.