December 9, 2011: The U.S. Marine Corps recently admitted that the lifetime cost of operating their new V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft had increased 64 percent over the last three years (to $121.5 billion). Although the marines MV-22s have flown over 100,000 hours in Afghanistan and have an excellent safety and reliability record, they are very expensive. With major cuts in the defense budget coming, there is pressure to cease production of the MV-22, and put more money into cheaper helicopters. That is already happening.
Four years ago the U.S. Marine Corps began working on an updated version of their heavy, CH-53E, transport helicopters. The new version was the CH-53K. First flight of a CH-53K was to take place this year, with first CH-53Ks entering service in 2015. But now this has all been delayed. First flight won't take place until 2013, and the CH-53K won't enter service until 2018. Technical problems are blamed, although helicopter advocates imply that the marines don't want to take money away from their MV-22 program to keep the CH-53K program on schedule.
There is still a lot of enthusiasm for the CH-53K. Two years ago, the marines decided to replace their elderly CH-53Ds with CH-53Ks, rather than the more expensive MV-22s. The CH-53K was to cost about $27 million each, compared to about three times that for an MV-22. However, delaying the introduction of the CH-53K will cost over a billion dollars, and add about $5 million to the cost of each CH-53K. Replacing the CH-53Ds means more CH-53Ks, for a total of about 200. It's expected that the final costs of the CH-53K will be higher, but still about half the cost of an MV-22.
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. Medium and heavy lift helicopters such as the CH-46E (over 200 in use) and the CH-53 A/D (about 70) were originally to be replaced by 348 V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. But delays in that program, and a reduction in the number of V-22s to be built, led to the CH-53K. While the 38 ton CH-53K is a better cargo hauler, the 27 ton MV-22 moves twice as fast, and the marines have found that to be a major advantage in combat.
The CH-53E remains one of the few heavy lift helicopters that can operate in the high altitudes in Afghanistan, and they have been heavily used there. The CH-53Es average age is fifteen years, and over 3,000 flight hours. They require 44 man hours of maintenance, for each hour in the air. As a result, it costs about $20,000 for each flight hour. CH-53Es are 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 (about 30 percent less than the MV-22).
At the present rate of use, the Marines will begin running out of heavy-lift helicopters by 2012, thus the decision to put the CH-53 back into production as the CH-53K. The new model will be 15 percent heavier (at 38 tons) than the CH-53E and be able to carry nearly twice as much (13.5 tons). The CH-53K will be much easier to maintain, and cost about half as much, per flight hour, to operate.
While the MV-22 is a superior helicopter transport (greater speed and range) in a combat zone, it's also a lot more expensive. The coming budget cuts will probably seeing the marines cutting MV-22 purchases and falling back on conventional helicopters like the CH-53K to maintain their battlefield mobility. It's another case of good-enough beating out better.