April 10, 2006
With replacement far off, current CH-53s may be upgraded

By Gayle S. Putrich
Times staff writer

It will be 2015 before Marines get their hands on the replacement for the CH-53E Super Stallion heavy-lift helicopter. But features that are planned to make the CH-53K more survivable in combat can benefit leathernecks flying in the E version right now.

At an aircraft survivability conference sponsored by the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement, Col. Paul Croisetiere said that as more tests are done on the 53’s vulnerabilities, changes to the specs of the CH-53Ks can be made, and upgrades can be done on existing helicopters as well.

“The Marine Corps is getting a significant payout on a small investment for testing,” said Croisetiere, heavy-lift program manager at Naval Air Systems Command.

Fleet must hold up

While some might say that continually upgrading old helicopters that are slated to be replaced is a waste of resources, Croisetiere said that the Corps still relies heavily on the existing 53s and, until the new CH-53Ks come on line in five to eight years, the existing fleet has to hold up.

He said decisions to add onto or upgrade existing helicopters are being made on a case-by-case basis and are usually tied to how much the changes will cost.

Because the 53s were not designed with combat in mind, there were very few initial survivability requirements included in the helicopters’ specifications in the mid-1970s. Their primary mission at the time was equipment retrieval, long after the firefights were over.

Since the Vietnam War, some protection has been added.

Ballistic armor in the floor and cockpit that will be standard in the CH-53K has already been added to all 148 CH-53Es still in operation. Armor add-on kits have also been developed for the CH-53D Sea Stallion, Croisetiere said.

A directional infrared countermeasures system will be tested using CH-53Es in July at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. It has already been decided that a similar infrared countermeasure system will be standard on the new CH-53Ks, but the test results will help the Pentagon explore whether to add them to existing 53s.

And the first two of three phases of live-fire testing at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, Calif., have shown engineers how far the Marine Corps can push the CH-53s it still has, even with combat damage to rotors or fuel lines.

“There is very little data currently available on vulnerabilities, and that’s why [we’re] testing,” Croisetiere said.

But making changes based on the testing is still a long way off, he said.

A third phase of live-fire testing, this time on gearboxes and related systems, is fully funded and scheduled to take place this fall.

“The good news is that the Marine Corps is making the investments in this aircraft to keep them going until we get the 53K,” Croisetiere said.