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Marine Corps Aviation: Modernizing Before the Storm

MV-22 Osprey

MV-22 Osprey

U.S. Marines assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 365, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), pick up coalition forces in Helmand province, Afghanistan, April 14, 2012. VMM-365 provides support of combat troops and provides supplies and equipment during amphibious operations and subsequent operations ashore. The MV-22 has justified the Marine Corps’ faith in it, proving itself in operational use. DoD photo by Cpl. Marcus Kuiper, U.S. Marine Corps

The Bell-Boeing MV-22B continues to replace the Boeing CH-46E and CH-53D helicopters in Marine medium-lift squadrons. (The CH-53D formally retired in February 2012, and the faithful Phrog leaves the fleet in 2017.) By mid-2012, the Marines had 152 of their planned 360 MV-22Bs in 12 operational squadrons.

According to the Marine program manager, the fast, long-ranged Osprey had become the transport of choice in Afghanistan. Reported availability has averaged better than 80 percent in theater and around 70 percent fleet-wide. MV-22 squadrons now deploy with 12 aircraft each.

The six VMM operational squadrons at New River, N.C., have completed their 18- to 22-month transitions from the CH-46E to the MV-22B. Ten West Coast squadrons are due to follow suit. The first of two squadrons based in Japan will stand up in 2012, and plans call for five more MV-22 squadrons based outside the continental United States by 2019.

Combined deliveries of Marine MV-22s and Air Force Special Operations Command CV-22s from the Bell final assembly plant in Fort Worth, Texas, will step up to 39 aircraft in 2012 and peak at 40 tilt-rotors in 2013. Production Block A Ospreys are assigned to training. Tilt-rotors deployed with operational squadrons are Block B MV-22Bs. Current production Marine aircraft are Block C MV-22Bs with forward-firing flare dispensers, wing fuel cells, weather radar, and other improvements. While the Marines have no firm Block D improvement plans, the current multiyear contract runs through 2019, and a follow-on contract should continue deliveries to 2021.



CH-53K Super Stallion

The CH-53K Super Stallion currently under development promises the Marines a Heavy Lift Replacement helicopter with nearly three times the high-and-hot payload of today’s CH-53E. Current plans call for first flight in 2014. Sikorsky Aircraft image

The Marine Corps took delivery of its last Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion in 2003, and the critical, expensive-to-operate heavy lifters are wearing out with wartime utilization two-and-a-half times the peacetime norm.

The replacement CH-53K, with new-technology engines, rotors, drivetrains, structures, and flight controls is meant to fit the same deck footprint on assault ships yet carry nearly three times the payload to high-and-hot landing zones. Fly-by-wire flight controls are expected to optimize handling, reduce pilot workload, and enhance survivability. A new “glass” cockpit meanwhile aims to reduce workload for the Kilo crew and afford digital connectivity in a networked battlespace.

By July 2012, the CH-53K Ground Test Vehicle was 78 percent complete and on schedule for first engine light-off in the third quarter of FY 2013. Three CH-53K Engineering Development Model (EDM) aircraft were also in assembly, and a fourth EDM vehicle was soon to be integrated onto the West Palm Beach, Fla., line. Current schedules call for first flight of EDM1 by the end of 2014 and for initial operational capability with four CH-53Ks in Marine Heavy Lift Helicopter squadron HMH-362 in 2019. A favorable Milestone C decision in the third quarter of 2015 would launch LRIP in fiscal year 2016.

Despite planned reductions in the size of the Marine Corps, the CH-53K program of record remains 200 production aircraft to fill eight active-duty squadrons and one Reserve squadron, with deliveries stretching through 2028. The Marines have about 150 CH-53Es in service today. To keep the ‘53E viable through 2027, the FY 2013 presidential budget funds enhancements, including an Integrated Mechanical Diagnostic System, Engine Reliability Improvement Program, and DIRCM.


Marine One

Marine One

A helicopter from HMX-1 “Nighthawks” comes in for a practice landing on the South Lawn of the White House, March 30, 2012. Official White House photo by Lawrence Jackson

Strategic, symbolic, and decidedly sensitive, the presidential helicopter fleet operated by Marine Experimental Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1) has grown old. The HMX-1 Executive Flight Detachment has 11 Sikorsky VH-3Ds delivered from 1975 and eight Sikorsky VH-60Ns put into service around 1989. The VH-3Ds are receiving digital cockpits, composite main rotor blades, cryptographic improvements, fuel system modifications, and interior refinements. Special progressive aircraft rework will stretch the service life of the relatively luxurious Sea Kings to 2024 with typical utilization. The VH-60Ns are likewise being updated with “glass” cockpits, later Seahawk engines, and wide-chord composite main rotor blades. A SLEP will help the White Hawks last to 2022. Both initiatives are meant to bridge the gap to a new Marine One.

The previous presidential helicopter replacement attempt to import AgustaWestland AW101s and integrate Lockheed Martin electronics and upholstery into VH-71s was canceled in 2009 due to rising costs. The Department of the Navy intends to propose a new presidential helicopter replacement acquisition strategy to the under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics this year. The results of risk- and cost-reduction work done for the current VH-3D/VH-60N fleet will be captured in an ongoing analysis of alternatives, and in the new strategy. The Naval Air Systems Command now expects to start a new presidential helicopter program around 2017 to achieve initial operational capability around 2022 or 2023.

Beyond the current technology of helicopters and tilt-rotors, the Marines and Navy are expected to benefit from the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) initiative and Joint Multi-Role (JMR) rotorcraft technology demonstration now led by the Army. The JMR/FVL vision seeks one scalable high-speed, long-range, vertical-lift technology to replace Army Apaches and Black Hawks, Navy Seahawks, and Marine H-1 Yankees and Zulus starting around 2030. Without firm requirements for a Seahawk/Zulu/Yankee replacement, the Navy has yet to join in JMR/FVL funding, but whatever the outcome, ground Marines will continue to fly.

This article was first published in Marine Corps Outlook: 2012 Edition.

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As an aerospace and defense writer for more than 30 years, Frank has written in-depth...