Navy wants to harvest retired Japanese helos for parts

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot

It’s unusual for the United States – by far the biggest defense spender in the world – to seek scrapped military equipment from other nations. Typically, those roles are reversed.

But for the past several years, according to internal emails obtained by The Virginian-Pilot, the U.S. Navy has been negotiating to acquire Japan’s retired fleet of MH-53E Sea Dragons. The Navy wants to harvest the old helicopters for parts to help keep its own Sea Dragons flying until 2025.

“It’s telling when we are put in a position where we need to buy scrapped aircraft to keep ours going,” said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent think tank in Washington. “For the most part, we’re buying the most recent generation of equipment and discarding the last generation. And many of our global partners and allies are still using them, so they’ll gladly take them off our hands.”

Japan is the only other country that bought Sea Dragons back when Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. was building the mine-clearing helicopters for the U.S. Navy in the 1980s. Unlike the United States, Japan decided to retire and replace its fleet last decade as the aircraft approached the end of their planned service life.

Navy and Japanese military officials have declined to discuss the potential exchange. The arrangement, however, highlights the difficulty the Navy has faced in the upkeep of its oldest and most maintenance-intensive helicopters as they near their fourth decade in service.

The Navy’s desire for discarded aircraft from Japan is likely, at least in part, a reflection of national priorities, Harrison said.

The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force has invested heavily in mine-clearing ships and helicopters, part of a strategy to counter the threat posed by China, a country boasting an enormous and sophisticated arsenal of sea mines. Japan began making plans in the late 1990s to replace its fleet of 11 Sea Dragons with a smaller and more efficient Italian-built helicopter, the MCH-101. The last of Japan’s Sea Dragons were retired within the past year.

Contrast that with the Navy, which initially planned to replace its Sea Dragons last decade. But as plans to outfit a smaller helicopter with mine-clearing equipment fizzled, and as other anti-mine technologies tied to the littoral combat ship have been delayed, the Navy has repeatedly pushed back plans to retire the Cold War-era helicopters.

While the Navy wavered, defense manufacturers stopped making many Sea Dragon replacement parts, assuming the helicopters were going away. That’s forced the service to get creative.

In November, a Marine officer in the Naval Air Systems Command office that’s responsible for overseeing the Navy’s Sea Dragon program emailed senior officials with the Navy’s Fleet Readiness Center in Japan. In the message, obtained by The Pilot, the officer outlined plans to acquire Japan’s remaining eight Sea Dragons.

“We have been negotiating with the Government of Japan for years to make this happen, and we are finally on the cusp,” the officer wrote. “We are going to negotiate for ‘nominal price,’ meaning hopefully as close to free as we can get.”

A few obstacles stand in the way of completing the deal, according to the email, including the need for high-level approval at the Pentagon and the risk that the scrapped helicopters were exposed to radiological contamination while responding to Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster following a 2011 earthquake.

If everything worked out, the officer wrote in a follow-up message, the Navy would most likely just harvest the scrapped airframes for parts. But the retired Japanese airframes could also serve another purpose if needed, the officer wrote:

“Unfortunately, last year we had two mishaps in the U.S. Navy that resulted in the destruction of two of our MH-53Es. We used to have 31, now we have 29. Since there may be more mishaps in the future, we would like to reserve the possibility of making a flyable aircraft someday with these airframes.”

Two months after the email was sent, another MH-53E crashed, this one off the coast of Virginia Beach, killing three crew members and reducing the Navy’s inventory of flyable Sea Dragons to 28.

The January crash revealed an unforeseen mechanical flaw that was repeated in every other Sea Dragon, requiring fleetwide repairs to replace worn fuel lines and wiring bundles. The Navy, however, remains confident in the long-term viability of the Sea Dragon, Capt. Todd Flannery said last week while briefing reporters on the mishap investigation.

Flannery, the commander of Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Atlantic, acknowledged that the helicopters are aging and that new parts can be hard to come by. But the shortage doesn’t usually affect day-to-day operations, he said.

“As components start to wear out, things that we haven’t had to replace for a very long time start to need to be replaced,” Flannery said. “And then we discover, no, we only have three or four of those in the supply system…. When an item that hasn’t failed for a very long time fails, it’s very difficult to find.”

Kelly Burdick, a spokeswoman for Naval Air Systems Command, said she could not discuss negotiations with other countries for parts or aircraft.

“We are currently exploring several options to supplement parts that are no longer in production for the MH-53 helicopter,” Burdick wrote in an email.

The issue is part of a bigger problem, said Harrison, the defense analyst. The Sea Dragon is one of several platforms that the Pentagon intended to replace last decade.

But because of delays and cost overruns related to the delivery of new combat systems – including the littoral combat ship – several older platforms have had to remain in service well beyond original plans, Harrison said.

Keeping aging equipment going comes with its own set of problems, he added: “As these systems age, they cost more and more money to maintain. So then there’s even less money available to replace them.”

One other problem: The older an aircraft gets, Harrison said, the more likely key components are to fail.

“It’s really a downward spiral.”

Back to Top