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The inspector of the Israeli Air Force advocates purchasing the Sikorsky CH-53K as a new heavy transport helicopter. That could also be important for Germany.

The decision on the new heavy transport helicopter (STH) seems to have been made in Israel. Israeli media reports that in the coming days a recommendation from the inspector of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) to procure the CH-53K from Sikorsky will fall. Many consider this helicopter to be currently the most modern and powerful in the world. Since the CH-53K is a new development, its unit price is more expensive than the competitor from Boeing, the CH-47, which has been in use for more than 40 years. Nevertheless, the cost factor is a key argument for the Israeli armed forces to opt for the Sikorsky helicopter: In the long term, it is worthwhile to buy a new, low-maintenance and expandable helicopter. The Israel Defense Forces consider procurement and life-cycle costs over a period of 25 years. In the end, a new helicopter is cheaper and more efficient.

At the same time, according to the media, a decision to procure Boeing / Bell V-22 helicopters will be announced. The V-22 has been criticized for its high maintenance costs. Israeli officers have publicly warned that if they opted for the V-22, less heavy transport helicopters could be procured. Obviously, both procurements should be linked. This also includes the procurement of F-35 combat aircraft. Due to the political crisis in Israel, the Ministry of Defense there has reduced its procurement list to the most urgent projects. Israeli security experts have reportedly placed the purchase of the F-35 aircraft and CH-53K helicopters high on the list. Israel wants to carry out the procurement via a Foreign Military Sale (FMS).

Berlin observes the decision-making process

Auch die Bundeswehr will einen neuen Schweren Transporthubschrauber beschaffen. Allerdings wurde die Ausschreibung vor Kurzem mit der Begründung abgebrochen, die Beschaffung sei kostenmäßig aus dem Ruder gelaufen. Zur Wahl stehen in Deutschland im Rahmen des Direct Commercial Sale (DCS)-Verfahrens die CH-53K und die CH-47. Das Berliner Verteidigungsministerium hat gerade eine Anfrage an die USA gestellt, um für beide Typen ein Angebot im FMS-Verfahren zu erhalten. Die Bundeswehr will jetzt auf Sonderwünsche verzichten und eine kostengünstigere Basisvariante beschaffen. „Im Rahmen der laufenden Vergabe wurde erkannt, dass eine Realisierung des Projektes im geplanten Finanzrahmen bei gleichzeitiger Erfüllung aller Forderungen unwahrscheinlich ist. Die Vergabestelle des Bundesamtes für Ausrüstung, Informationstechnik und Nutzung der Bundeswehr (BAAINBw) hat die vorliegenden Angebote als unwirtschaftlich bewertet und aus diesem Grund das Vergabeverfahren aufgehoben“, begründete der Verteidigungsministerium den überraschenden Stopp des seit Jahren laufenden Vergabeverfahrens. Zugleich betonte es aber, dass das bisherige Muster CH-53G zeitgerecht ersetzt werden muss. Die Truppe habe nach wie vor einen entsprechenden Bedarf. Das Ende der Nutzungsdauer der CH-53G ist spätestens 2030 erreicht. Schon jetzt ist die Verfügbarkeit mangelhaft. „Das Projekt wird daher mit veränderten Vorgaben fortgesetzt“, so die Bundeswehr, denn „die Realisierung des Projekts STH hat für die Bundeswehr eine sehr hohe Priorität, da die Fähigkeit zum Lufttransport sowohl für die Mobilität und Reaktionsfähigkeit von Streitkräften wie auch für Hilfs- und Unterstützungsleistungen von herausragender Bedeutung sind“.

German Air Force Helicopter Pilots Undergo CH-53 Conversion Training at Tel-Nof AFB, Photography: Mor Tzidon

In any case, the Israeli decision should be monitored very closely in Berlin. Because Israel's armed forces and the German armed forces have a close partnership. Like the German Air Force, the Israelis have already flown an old version of the CH-53. This enabled pilots from both countries to take part in flight training courses together - in Israel and Germany. For example, Israelis practiced mountain flying in Germany, while the Germans in Israel could basically train under very realistic conditions. This is a huge benefit for pilots. By purchasing the same type of helicopter, these training courses could be continued without a hitch. It is also conceivable that the procurements of both nations are combined. This could have a positive impact on the price of the CH-53K for both nations.

German Air Force Helicopter Pilots Undergo CH-53 Conversion Training at Tel-Nof AFB, Photography: Mor Tzidon

The armed forces of both countries are already in contact on this matter: The evaluation flights with the CH-53K were carried out by both nations at the same time in the USA in 2019. Thereafter, there should have been further discussions at the highest level.

Sikorsky confirmed that sufficient production capacity would still be available for German needs, even if the Israeli order was received earlier. The total production capacities for the CH-53K in the Sikorsky main plant in Stratford, Connecticut, are already designed for further international orders, in addition to the ongoing production of a total of 200 CH-53K for the US Marine Corps, it is said.

CH-53K in series production

On October 26, 2020, Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) signed a EUR 470 million contract with Sikorsky - Lockheed Martin for the production and delivery of another six CH-53K "King Stallion" heavy transport helicopters. In addition to the delivery of the aircraft, programmatic and technical support and the provision of special tools were also agreed. The helicopters are due to be delivered in 2024. With the 4th lot a total of 24 CH-53K are under contract. The contracts for the 5th and 6th lot with eight and eleven helicopters respectively should be concluded this year.

In the German tendering process, the CH-53K was offered by a team led by Sikorsky and Rheinmetall (simulation, training, technical documentation, maintenance, repair & operation). The US company had well-known German companies such as MTU Aero Engines (engine & maintenance), Autoflug GmbH (seats, rescue equipment, MEDEVAC equipment), Hydro Systems KG (ground equipment and special tools), Hensoldt (self-protection system, mission planning system), Vincorion (winch ), ZF (dynamic components), Liebherr (landing gear system), Collins Aerospace (cockpit & avionics) and Rohde & Schwarz (radio).

André Forkert