PROCUREMENT: Israel Upgrades Heavy Lifters
At the end of 2021 Israel ordered three billion dollars’ worth of CH-53K heavy transport helicopters, and two more KC-46 aerial refueling aircraft. Despite development delays, Israel has long sought to replace its elderly CH-53Ds with latest version; the CH-53K. Israel has 38 of the older CH-53D models and despite refurbishment and upgrades, expected most of them to be unusable by 2030.
Development of the CH-53K began in 2007 and its first flight was in 2015. The U.S. Marine Corps received the first production models in 2018. Israel monitored the performance of the 53K for two years and was satisfied with how the new model performed.
Development of the CH-53K was delayed by technical problems, as well as not enough money to keep the development on schedule. As more foreign customers, like Germany and Israel, expressed interest, more money was applied to put the CH-53K back on its original schedule.
For those who needed a replacement for old CH-53s, there was a lot of enthusiasm for the CH-53K. Although the marines were buying a lot of the new MV-22 tilt-rotor transports, in 2009 they decided to replace some of their elderly CH-53Ds with CH-53Ks, rather than the more expensive MV-22s. The marines still purchased MV-22s but the CH-53K was to cost about 60 percent less than a MV-22. Replacing the marine CH-53Ds means about 190 CH-53Ks will be built. Germany and Israel wanted to replace older CH-53s as well, but the marines had priority in receiving the 53K.
While waiting for a suitable replacement, Israel decided in 2008 to refurbish and upgrade its 38 CH-53Ds so that they would last until 2025. The upgrades included much better protection from small anti-aircraft missiles. The 20-ton CH-53 entered service in the mid-1960s, and the first one entered Israeli service in 1968. In a country as small as Israel, the CH-53 was very useful. The CH-53 has a cruising speed of 290 kilometers an hour, and can stay in the air for over three hours per sortie. It can carry up to 55 passengers, or 8 tons of cargo (including artillery slung beneath). Israel considered replacing the CH-53s with the MV-22, but the longer range, and higher speed, of the tilt-rotor aircraft was not a plus. Nor was the higher cost. The CH-53 could still haul more people and cargo. The CH-53K is even better at that with a higher cruising speed of 310 kilometers an hour, and the same passenger capacity of 55, but now has 30 in seats that offer protection from hard landings. While sortie duration is about ten percent less, carrying capacity doubles to 16 tons of cargo (including artillery slung beneath).
The first major upgrade and refurbishment of the Israeli CH-53 fleet was in the late 1990s. The more recent refurb includes a nearly complete upgrade or replacement of all the electronics. This made the helicopter more reliable, cheaper to maintain and easier to fly. With rebuilding and careful maintenance, these helicopters can be kept in the air indefinitely, if you are willing to pay growing maintenance costs and fewer of those older CH-53s able to fly. With that in mind Israel expected to have a replacement aircraft by 2025. Israel has ordered twelve CH-53Ks, with an option to get six more. The first twelve are to arrive in 2026.
The Marine Corps currently operates a number of different helicopters and for years has been planning to shrink the number of types to save on operational and procurement costs. At first the solution appeared to be 348 new MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. Delays in that program, and a reduction in the number of MV-22s to be built, led to the CH-53K. While the CH-53K is a better cargo hauler, the MV-22 moves twice as fast, and the marines have found that to be a major advantage in combat. Unlike Israel, the American marines often carry out raids or attacks on distant targets that require a helicopter and the element of surprise. The MV-22 supplies that.
The CH-53 had its own unique capabilities. For example, it was one of the few heavy lift helicopters that can operate in the high altitudes in Afghanistan, and for that reason they were heavily used there. That additional air time was hard on marines’ CH-53s, whose average age was fifteen years, and over 3,000 flight hours each. The older helicopters required 44 man- hours of maintenance for each hour in the air. As a result, it cost about $20,000 for each flight hour. These CH-53s were good for about 6,000 flight hours before metal fatigue makes them too dangerous to fly. The CH-53K will get cost per flight hour down to about $10,000 compared to 20 percent more for the MV-22.