Super Stallion helicopters worn out after years of war, internal military report concludes

By Mike Hixenbaugh and Jason Paladino

After more than a decade of relentless combat, the Marine Corps’ workhorse helicopter, the CH-53E Super Stallion, is in dire need of attention, according to internal report obtained by The Virginian-Pilot.

The internal military report leads with a warning, typed in bold: If called to war tonight, the Marine Corps could only meet operational demands by deploying nearly every heavy-lift transport helicopter remaining in its inventory.

That would mean activating all aircraft that are down for long-term maintenance and three-quarters of those reserved for training new pilots.

One problem with that: The majority of these helicopters aren’t in condition to fly and would need weeks, or even months, of work to get ready, to say nothing of the preparation of aviators who would pilot them into harm’s way.

After more than a decade of relentless combat – a period marked by repeated deployments to the Middle East, ballooning procurement costs and cuts to defense spending – the Marine Corps’ workhorse helicopter, the CH-53E Super Stallion, is worn out and in need of serious attention.

The Super Stallion is the Marines’ primary option for moving troops and cargo on land and at sea, where it operates aboard amphibious Navy ships. It remains in high demand more than 35 years after entering service, but the Cold War-era aircraft hasn’t received the resources needed to keep it operating at a high level.

That’s according to an independent study conducted on behalf of the Marine Corps last year. The report, the Super Stallion Independent Readiness Review, is classified “For Official Use Only” and has not been made public. Sources with access to the document have briefed The Virginian-Pilot and the Investigative Reporting Program on its detailed findings.

Among them:

• Not enough Super Stallions remain in service. The Marine Corps purchased more than 230 CH-53Es from Sikorsky Aircraft Corp between the late 1970s and early ’90s, but after decades of flying and more than two dozen crashes, only 146 remain, more than 50 below what’s needed.

• “Operational commanders challenged with this astonishingly depleted inventory are further hamstrung by unacceptably poor readiness.” Because of parts shortages, maintenance backlogs and years of wear, only 23 percent of remaining Super Stallions were ready to fly this time last year, far below the military’s standard 75 percent readiness requirement.

• “Aircraft were not properly reset during and after the war.” The Marine Corps, according to the report, spent only about $100,000 per aircraft to restore its Super Stallions after the Afghanistan drawdown. The service hired temporary contractors who spent about a month on tune-ups for each helicopter. The Army, in contrast, has spent about $1.2 million restoring each of its transport helicopters, investing more than 100 days of work and 6,000 man hours on each aircraft.

• With so few functioning Super Stallions, pilots and aircrew aren’t flying enough to stay proficient. “Poor CH-53E availability is costing the Marine Corps an entire generation of aircrew and contributing to the destruction of community morale. … Anecdotes are rampant of pilots returning from six-month deployments with only 30 total flight hours and pilots completing their first operational tours with too few hours to become aircraft commanders.”

Armed with the report, the Marine Corps announced sweeping plans last month to overhaul its Super Stallion fleet as part of its annual aviation plan. The goal is to return each helicopter to “full-mission-capable status” over the next three years and give squadrons resources needed to maintain them for years to come.

“I’m not happy at all where we are with (Super Stallion) right now, but I do believe we have a recovery strategy that will work,” said Lt. Gen. Jon M. Davis, the Marine Corps deputy commandant for aviation, in an interview with The Pilot. “I’m proud of what we’re doing to fix this, but I’m not proud of where we’re at right now. The taxpayers should be unhappy with the return they’re getting on their investment.”

Davis ordered the Super Stallion review a year ago, part of a broader effort to improve combat readiness after more than a decade of fighting. Similar studies have been conducted or are underway for other Marine Corps aircraft, including the MV-22 Osprey and AV-8B Harrier.

Many of the Super Stallion’s problems can be traced to the decision not to do a proper reset after years of fighting in Afghanistan, Davis said.

“We were trying to get maximum readiness at the time, and the best way to do that was to do it in theater (in Afghanistan),” Davis said. “Frankly, we needed to do what the Army did. That would have given us less aircraft to fly then, but we’d have more aircraft to fly now. … We made a mistake. But now we’re recovering from that.”

Of more than $650 million budgeted to reset Marine Corps programs, about half is being spent on the Super Stallion fleet over the next three years, Davis said. That work has already begun.

The Super Stallion reset comes during a period of increased scrutiny for the aging helicopter and the Navy’s MH-53E Sea Dragon, a nearly identical variant used primarily for minesweeping. The Super Stallions and Sea Dragons must remain in service years longer than planned due to delays in developing replacements; each has dealt with poor readiness and above-average crash rates in recent years, grabbing headlines and spurring brass to reinvest in the programs.

Many of the helicopters were grounded for months last year while crews made thousands of repairs to potentially unsafe wires and fuel lines, a problem that came to light after a Sea Dragon caught fire and crashed off the coast of Virginia Beach two years ago, killing three sailors. More than a year after that mishap, The Pilot and IRP revealed in an exclusive report that Navy and Marine Corps maintenance crews had failed to adequately address the safety hazard.

Davis said he first learned of the unaddressed safety issue last year from The Pilot story and “had a small meltdown.” He temporarily grounded the entire fleet and called for the most comprehensive one-time inspection and repair process in the helicopter program’s history.

“A lot of people thought that was overkill,” Davis said. “I wanted to make sure we had safe airplanes.”

As a result, Super Stallions spent only about 21,500 hours in the air in 2015, down from a total of more than 32,000 hours a couple years ago. It was the fewest flight hours logged by the aircraft in any year since 1988, when the military was still buying new Super Stallions and introducing them into service.

The poor state of the Super Stallions has occasionally put a strain on other Marine Corps aircraft: A CH-53E squadron was unable to deploy to Nepal last April, leaving earthquake relief efforts to helicopters with smaller payloads, including a UH-1Y Huey that crashed in Himalayas, killing six Marines and five Nepali civilians.

The Super Stallion’s problems are a symptom of a larger systemic issue plaguing the military, said Todd Harrison, director of budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Delays and cost overruns for new weapons systems – including the CH-53K, which initially was expected to begin replacing the Super Stallion last year but won’t be ready to come on-line until at least 2019 – are putting a strain on the upkeep of existing assets, Harrison said.

“This is becoming more common across the services,” he said. “It’s a balancing act between dealing with the needs of today and the needs of the future, and in a zero-sum budget environment, there’s no easy answer.”


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