Israeli Air Force pilots, including senior officers, have already flown the Sikorsky/Lockheed Martin CH-53K King Stallion, and the force is showing interest in the helicopters as a replacement for the veteran Yasur helicopter.
The IAF is modernizing its heavy-lift helicopter fleet, as its aging Yasur helicopters are set to be replaced by 2025 when they will be over 50 years old. Accordingly, Israel is considering purchasing 24 heavy-lift helicopters. The two contenders are the CH-53K King Stallion and Boeing's CH-47 Chinook.
Representatives from Sikorsky and the US Marine Corps were in Israel this past week, hosted by CEO of Lockheed Martin Israel Brig. Gen. (res.) Shiki Shani, meeting with senior air force and Defense Ministry officials about the helicopter. The delegation was led by Elizabeth Parcella, director of Sikorsky’s international CH-53K program, Frank Crisafulli, international sales director of heavy-lift helicopters at Sikorsky, and Col. Hank Vanderborght, program manager for the Marine Corps’ heavy-lift helicopter.
According to Program Director Parcella, the helicopter's simulator will arrive in Israel after making its international debut at the Berlin Air Show in April. Currently, both Israel and Germany are considering purchasing the CH-53K, whose largest client so far has been the US Marine Corps, which ordered some 200 units.
Col. Vandenberg is a veteran helicopter pilot, experienced in flying in war zones such as Afghanistan, who has been marketing the helicopter for more than ten years. According to him, the Marine Corps has already logged 700 flight hours on the CH-53K, including testing its limits by flying at 207 knots (383 kph).
Powered by three 7,500 horsepower engines providing a cruise speed of 170 knots (top speed of 207 knots) and a range of 530 miles (852 km), the CH-53K is the most powerful helicopter ever built in the United States, Vanderborght said. It can carry 30 fully equipped fighters or two heavy vehicles and is able to operate at high temperatures of 39 degrees Celsius (102 degrees Fahrenheit).
Sikorsky refers to the King Stallion as the "helicopter of the future" because of its innovative systems, allowing it to operate in extreme weather conditions. Features of the CH-53K helicopter include a modern glass cockpit, fourth-generation rotor blades with anhedral tips, electronic warfare systems, and more. On top of that, program managers promise that the IAF will be able to install other systems manufactured by Israeli defense industries, as Israel customarily does with imported military hardware. For instance, Elbit-made systems were installed on the previous model of the helicopter, the CH-53E.
The CH-53K is also fitted with digital fly-by-wire avionics with fully integrated flight and navigation displays and has a mechanical diagnostic system that notifies maintenance crews when a part needs to be replaced. It can carry three times as much cargo as the CH-53 Sea Stallion and has air-to-air refueling capability.
Operated by a crew of five – including two pilots and a combat crew of three gunners – the King Stallion is fitted with self-defense weapons and ballistic protection. Its crashworthy seats and retractable landing gear significantly increase aircraft and crew survivability. The helicopter is fully armored including inside the cabin itself and its seats. The fuel tanks have also been designed to have inert gases pumped into them instead of allowing oxygen to build up inside, making them less likely to explode if hit by missiles.
The helicopter's exceptionally large cargo compartment is an important feature for combat operations as it enables fewer transport sorties to the destination. According to Sikorsky, it is possible that in 20-30 years, the CH-53K would be remotely piloted.
The program executives said that the development stage is completed and production has already begun. According to Col. Vanderborght, there are 12 helicopters in various stages of production, with four expected to be ready by the end of the year. The first helicopter will be delivered later this year for operational test flights. In 2019, all test flights will be concluded and the helicopters will be delivered to squadrons. The price of the CH-53K King Stallion is estimated at $87 million, although the price drops as more aircraft are purchased.
In the near future, the Israeli Ministry of Defense, the IDF General Staff, and the Air Force will decide on Israel's next heavy-lift helicopter. Will it be Sikorsky's CH-53K King Stallion or Boeing's CH-47 Chinook? Time will tell.