Troubled Lockheed copter needs new review, Inhofe tells Pentagon

A CH-53K King Stallion aircraft, left, prepares to land at Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, Jupiter, Fla., March 8, 2016.


By TONY CAPACCIO | Bloomberg | Published: April 25, 2019

The Pentagon needs to undertake another review of Lockheed Martin Corp.'s $31 billion CH-53K heavy lift helicopter program amid continuing technical problems and delays, according to the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said the importance of the CH-53K King Stallion to the Marine Corps means that a "comprehensive, independent update" on the long-delayed program is overdue. Inhofe's role leading the committee that authorizes defense spending means his request will almost certainly be heeded.

"We need to get it right, and this report should give us a current assessment and reestablish a baseline for the program to ensure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely," Inhofe said in a statement to Bloomberg News. The senator cited concern that the chopper "is more than a year behind schedule and has over 100 outstanding deficiencies that still require resolution."

Inhofe's request comes as the Navy plans to award a production contract for as many as 14 new King Stallions next month, though so far only two of a planned 200 helicopters are under contract. The Navy program office and Lockheed's Sikorsky Aircraft unit are still working to address 126 technical deficiencies, according to the Pentagon's latest report on the system. Inhofe stopped short of suggesting the contract not be signed.

The Navy acknowledged in the Pentagon's latest Selected Acquisition Report to Congress that the helicopter designed to carry heavy cargo 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.

"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. There are no significant software-related issues with this program at this time, it said.

Sikorsky's performance on the contract for the first two production-model aircraft has been marred by "part shortages and purchase orders for suppliers late to award or not yet on contract," according to the report.

The Navy "is working with the contractor on solutions for issues identified" in the report, according to Captain Danny Hernandez, a spokesman for the Navy's assistant secretary for acquisition. The department is in the final stages of awarding the production contract in the next few weeks, and the fixed-price contract will contain provisions intended to "address the outstanding issues," he said. "The Navy is confident with the design" and the now-restructured program "will address these issues and verify them in testing."

The King Stallion will be the same size as its predecessor, the Super Stallion, but will be able to haul almost triple the cargo, lifting 27,000 pounds (12,200 kilograms), according to Lockheed. The Navy's plans to buy 200 copters for the Marines was a prime motivation for Lockheed's $9 billion acquisition of Sikorsky Aircraft from United Technologies Corp. in 2015.

Bill Falk, the King Stallion program manager for Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed, said in a statement that "the team has identified technical issues over the course of flight testing, corrected many, and have approved plans in place for the remaining items. The remaining technical design items are not new, and are agreed upon with the government for closure."

"Sikorsky anticipates we will soon reach an agreement with the government" for the next low-rate production contracts, Falk said.

The two helicopters currently under contract were awarded in April 2016 under a $286 million fixed-priced contract with incentive payments.

Company officials said they understand the chopper's most pressing problem -- exhaust gas sucked back into the second of the helicopters' three engines -- "and have found fixes," according to Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a defense research organization that receives funding from Lockheed.

Still, citing concerns about the exhaust issue, House Armed Services Committee Representative Adam Smith this month agreed to shift only half of the $158 million the Navy requested to increase testing. Smith, a Democrat from Washington state, said he'd approve the remaining $79 million only after the Marines and the Pentagon's test office provide a report about progress the Navy was making solving the exhaust problem.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla, attends a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 26, 2019.

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