Pentagon review pits Boeing vs. Lockheed for Marine helicopters

Soldiers from the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division conduct sling load operations with a CH-47 Chinook from the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade Feb 21, 2019.


By TONY CAPACCIO | Bloomberg | Published: May 6, 2019

The Pentagon is assessing whether Boeing's heavy-lift helicopter for the Army, the CH-47 Chinook, could replace Lockheed Martin's troubled King Stallion chopper for some or all Marine Corps missions, according to officials.

Boeing has provided the Defense Department information on how the Chinook might be adapted for Marine Corps missions, according to two officials, both of whom asked not to be identified because the information isn't public. Analysts from the Pentagon's independent cost analysis and program assessment group met at Boeing's Philadelphia facility April 25 to review the data, the officials said.

A Pentagon decision to direct the Navy to buy maritime versions of the CH-47 — assuming the chopper can be converted for the rugged, corrosive environment of aircraft carriers and amphibious warfare ships — would be a blow to Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed. The Navy's plans to buy 200 King Stallions, known as the CH-53K, were a prime motivation for the company's $9 billion acquisition of Sikorsky Aircraft from United Technologies Corp. in 2015.

Bill Falk, the King Stallion's program director, said he was aware of the review and was confident his company's helicopter remains the Navy's best choice.

"There is simply no other helicopter that comes close to the performance of the CH-53K or that can meet Marine Corps requirements," he said.

That view was echoed by Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, the service's deputy commandant for aviation, who said the King Stallion is the only aircraft with the heavy-lift capability "to meet future operational requirements."

But Boeing's Philadelphia plant and its 4,580 workers would receive a major boost if the Pentagon shifted direction given that the Army, in its new five-year budget plan, proposed halting procurement of 28 CH-47 Chinooks and shifting an estimated $962 million into a separate program.

The Pentagon assessment was begun after an April 4 request from Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe who cited continuing technical problems and delays with the $31 billion King Stallion program.

Inhofe's request called for an assessment of the CH-53K's cost, schedule and performance and "an assessment of alternatives for other platforms that might meet the mission," Robert Daigle, director of the cost analysis office, said in an interview last week. The Chinook "is one of those alternatives," he added.

The Pentagon review also comes just before the Navy plans to award a production contract for as many as 14 new King Stallions this month; so far only two of the planned 200 helicopters are under contract.

"We have a limited amount of time to try and inform that decision as much as possible -- so we have a very short window in which to do the best job we can on this analysis," Daigle said. He added that he wants to complete it in "a handful of weeks."

Still, converting the CH-47 for Marine missions would "absolutely not" involve simple modifications, Daigle said. "The analysis we've have done so far doesn't suggest that the '47 is actually going to meet the lift that the '53K will provide so if you were going to go down the '47 route, our current estimate says there will be an operational impact." Pentagon officials, the Navy and Marines will have to determine whether that trade off is worthwhile, he added.

Todd Blecher, a spokesman for Chicago-based Boeing, said in statement that the Chinook already "conducts ship-based operations for U.S. Special Forces and international operators, and enjoys a strong reputation among all the U.S. services. We appreciate this opportunity to discuss how it could affordably address missions and requirements beyond those for which it is normally considered."

The Navy acknowledged in the Pentagon's latest Selected Acquisition Report to Congress that the King Stallion won't meet its December target date for initial combat capability. The new tentative date is September 2021, according to the document obtained by Bloomberg News.

The Navy program office and Lockheed's Sikorsky Aircraft unit are working in the current development phase to address 126 technical deficiencies in the chopper, according to the SAR report.

"Resolution of remaining technical issues and completion of airworthiness certification testing remain top priorities" to solve, according to the report. The Navy and Lockheed plan to resolve these technical issues by June 2020, "with the majority of the designs completed" by December of this year, it said.

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