Selecting the IAF’s Future Heavy-Lift Helicopter

The future competition over the character of the IAF’s heavy-lift helicopter fleet is imminent. Will the future fleet consist of Boeing’s Chinook or of the “King of Helicopters” by Sikorsky/Lockheed Martin? In any case, the operational requirements are extremely demanding

Selecting the IAF’s Future Heavy-Lift Helicopter

The competition has not officially started yet, but the buzz is already in the air. IAF pilots have already visited the major helicopter manufacturers overseas and have actually flown some of the potential competitors. Which helicopter will gradually take the place of the veteran CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters of the IAF? What will the heavy-lift helicopter fleet of the IAF look like in a decade or more?

The number of contenders is fairly limited: admittedly, Russia manufactures heavy-lift helicopters, but the phenomenal coordination between Russia and Israel in the sky over Syria notwithstanding, the Israeli government is not queueing up to purchase helicopters from Putin. So only two serious contenders remain: the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation acquired by Lockheed Martin, and Boeing Rotorcraft Systems. Competing neck to neck are the CH-47 Chinook and CH-53K King Stallion, known as the "King of Helicopters".

Sikorsky's CH-53 Sea Stallions gained extensive experience in the IAF. Dozens of such helicopters have been flying over Israel as well as in operational missions overseas and behind enemy lines since 1969. Generations of air crews have flown, are flying and love the big helicopter, which transported supplies, personnel and equipment, evacuated wounded servicemen and civilians and delivered humanitarian aid in the rain and heat, in the snows of the Galilee and the dust of the Negev, and has undergone a life-extending and upgrading project that will keep it operational for about a decade, but soon the time will come to think about a successor.

What will IAF want from the future heavy-lift helicopter? What are the operational requirements the successor of the CH-53 Sea Stallion will have to comply with? Well, it will have to deliver everything the CH-53 can deliver, but much more. The IAF will want a helicopter capable of flying farther, higher as well as lower, capable of taking off and landing using difficult improvised helipads in the desert, of carrying heavier loads and more troopers, a helicopter possessing enhanced, state-of-the-art self-defense capabilities, high survivability, simplified and less costly maintenance.

One major characteristic the future heavy-lift helicopter should possess: it must be suitable for special operations. In other words, it should possess all of the characteristics listed above, but in an “enhanced” package. As we will see, the manufacturers definitely consider the issue of special operations in coming to offer their helicopters to the IDF at this time, as the Israeli military has to prepare for conventional conflicts between regular military forces as well as for asymmetrical warfare confrontations in environments saturated with threats and terrorists, where the ranges are between very short and very long, where alert intervals could be extremely short and where the front line may become the rear area and the rear area may become the front. Under all of these circumstances, the heavy-lift helicopter has a major role to play by transporting troops and their equipment to the battlefield and assisting in evacuation, search and rescue and other missions.

While these lines are being written, IAF is “showing interest” in both helicopters – the CH-53K King Stallion by Sikorsky and the CH-47 Chinook by Boeing, two major US manufacturers possessing numerous representative agencies, solid reputation, power, seniority and connections in Israel. Sikorsky now belongs to another giant – Lockheed Martin, which is also a major supplier of the IAF and the IDF.

The Need: Versatility

There is a fundamental difference between the two big helicopters: Sikorsky's King Stallion is, admittedly, a successor of the Sea Stallion, but in fact it is a whole new helicopter that performed its maiden flight as recently as late October 2015. The flight was performed at Sikorsky's test facility in West Palm Beach, Florida. The helicopter was airborne for about 30 minutes and Sikorsky's chief test pilot, Stephen McCulley, said: "This aircraft flew just like we expected it to fly… there were no surprises. We are extremely happy with the aircraft response." Following the test flight, the helicopter was declared Fully Flyable. The King Stallion project is a US$ 25.5 billion project and USMC plans to purchase 200 helicopters to replace their CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters. As far as the IAF pilots are concerned, the new King Stallion is the successor of the familiar CH-53 Sea Stallion, but the new model – if it is acquired by IAF – will be a whole new helicopter.

Chinook helicopters, on the other hand, never carried the blue-and-white Star of David emblem. The CH-47 Chinook has been serving as a heavy-lift operational helicopter since 1962. 1,160 helicopters of this model were built to date and are flying all over the world, in dozens of countries and air forces. The dual-rotor Chinook helicopters are familiar to audiences of newsreels and movies as the platforms that transport US troops into the battlefield and into disaster-stricken areas.

Boeing defines the CH-47 Chinook as an advanced, versatile, multi-role, multi-mission helicopter for the US military and for armed forces around the world. It features a full digital management system in the cockpit, advanced load carrying capabilities and the Boeing Corporation undertakes to maintain the helicopter and keep it ready anywhere in the world through a system of agreements and contracts with the users, which cover logistics, maintenance, spare parts and repairs. The Chinook helicopter is also suitable for the roles of delivering humanitarian aid in natural disaster situations, delivering supplies and evacuating refugees. Chinook helicopters are in service in 19 different countries.

The CH-47 Chinook is conspicuous for its tandem rotor configuration. The two rotors, fore and aft, rotate in opposite directions, so the helicopter does not require a tail rotor for balancing. The Boeing Corporation explains that the tandem rotor configuration is suitable for IAF: as the helicopter does not have a tail rotor, both main rotors provide the full power for the lift, for flight and for load lifting and no power is wasted on preventing yawing. As the helicopter has two main rotors, the rotor blades could be shortened so the helicopter can fly through narrower passages, like ravines or narrow canyons. This helicopter is also capable of higher speeds and enhanced flight levels – operational advantages in the context of transporting special operations forces to special missions. Owing to the flight level performance of the CH-47, the Indians ordered 15 such helicopters to fly over the Himalaya mountain ridge. The Chinook is powered by two engines and can carry two tons of cargo or 44 troopers in its internal cargo hold, and eight tons on external slings. Its maximum speed is 302 kilometers per hour, its cruising speed is 291 km/h, its mission radius is 370 km and its flight level is 20,000 feet – about 6 km. CH-47 variants are used by the air forces of Australia, Canada, Greece, Italy, Japan, Holland, South Korea, Spain, UAE, Britain and, naturally, the USA. The Chinook has several variants, including special models for special operations units (Block 2). The Chinook helicopters currently in service are expected to continue flying until 2040. 800 Chinook helicopters are flying around the world at any given moment.

The CH-53K King Stallion has been named by Sikorsky as "the world's best heavy-lift helicopter." It is powered by three engines, its cruising speed is 141 knots (261 km/h) and its range is 530 miles (852 km). The blades of the main and tail rotors as well as parts of the helicopter frame are made from composite materials.

Parts of the helicopter are protected by light armor plating. The helicopter is fitted with self-defense weapons and ballistic protection. The passenger seats and the undercarriage are made from crash-proof materials. The Chinook utilizes Fly-by-Wire steering. The pilots are provided with modern “Glass Cockpit” type controls and instrument display, including state-of-the-art avionics by Rockwell-Collins. The helicopter can carry between 35 and 55 troopers in the cargo hold. The crew consists of five specialists: two pilots, loadmasters and weapon operators. The CH-53K carries three times as much cargo as the CH-53 Sea Stallion. The reliability and survivability ratings of the helicopter are very high, it can take off and land from/on naval vessels or remote bases and its maintenance costs are low. Sikorsky may offer IAF the naval version, Sea Hawk, built specifically for naval missions, including Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) missions, which is fitted with a maritime Radar system, EW systems and state-of-the-art weaponry that includes missiles and torpedoes for engaging underwater vessels.

Various news agencies reported last year that Israel, Japan and Germany are “prospective clients” of Sikorsky's King Stallion helicopter. The Flight Global aviation website reported on August 10, 2015 that "IAF has already issued an operational requirement for the 'K' (the abbreviated designation of the King Stallion) and (announced) that this acquisition is high on Israel's scale of priorities as it is operationally urgent, and IAF sources said that the King Stallion will become an inseparable part of the helicopter fleet." Websites that publish lists of IAF aircraft have stated that the King Stallion is pending evaluation by the IAF.

And what is Sikorsky's official position? Owing to the interim period during which Sikorsky is being transferred to the ownership of Lockheed Martin, the Company undertook a vow of silence on issues pertaining to aircraft procurement. However, in response to a special inquiry from Israel Defense, the management of Sikorsky USA provided the following response: "We can confirm that our CH-53K helicopter is an option being evaluated by IAF but while evaluation is ongoing it would be inappropriate for us to comment further."

The Boeing Corporation told Israel Defense that "IAF is definitely showing an interest in our Chinook helicopter, and this helicopter is a leading contender. The people of IAF received numerous briefings, IAF pilots have flown the helicopter over the past eighteen months and have even performed joint flights with the US Army. The helicopter is a solid contender for the IAF."

At Boeing they reason that the Israeli government, IMOD, IDF and IAF will have to make a decision regarding the identity of the future heavy-lift helicopter by the end of the decade. They may order the helicopters from Boeing around 2019 and would have them delivered in 2021-2022. The sources at Boeing added that the helicopters may be included in President Obama's compensation package for Israel (pursuant to the nuclear agreement with Iran), and that it is also possible that these helicopters may be purchased as a replacement for the CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters, which will gradually be taken out of service in the IAF.

At Boeing they were able to link the purchasing of the Chinook heavy-lift helicopters with another acquisition from Boeing – the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, intended primarily for operational employment by special units. We have heard sources at Boeing speculating that Israel could decide to purchase a mix of between 25 and 30 Chinook helicopters plus 12 to 14 V-22 tiltrotor aircraft. Both aircraft possess improved capabilities for transporting special operations troops to special missions. These capabilities are the outcome of the features of both platforms.

Boeing emphasizes the operational significance of the future mix they offer of CH-47 Chinook helicopters and V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft for the benefit of a heliborne-airborne arm that will be particularly suitable for the increasing emphasis placed by IDF on special missions, specialist units and special operations.

"There is no doubt that the V-22 aircraft changes the whole picture. It is a real game changer," a senior Boeing official told Israel Defense. This aircraft has two engines with a variable axis, which enable vertical take-off and landing like a helicopter, after which the aircraft switches to straight and level flight, like a fixed-wing aircraft, by tilting the engines forward. Aircraft of this type participated in combat operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. The V-22 Osprey can carry between 24 and 30 troopers and is highly suitable to the task of transporting special operations troops to combat zones where the fact that the platform is both a helicopter and a fixed-wing aircraft offers an advantage.

In 2013, the US Department of Defense announced that the USA was willing to sell V-22 aircraft to Israel. Subsequently, some reports indicated that the idea was rejected owing to budget constraints, but then other reports indicated that this platform may be a part of President Obama's compensation package for Israel. In any case, the Boeing Corporation promotes the 'mix' concept.

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