U.S. Navy buys old helicopters from Japan for spare parts

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot

The Navy has purchased two decommissioned Japanese military helicopters and additional used parts, completing an international deal in the works for more than five years. The U.S. plans to harvest the aircraft for parts to maintain its aging fleet of MH-53E Sea Dragons.

A Navy spokeswoman couldn’t place a value on the acquisition, but it appears the service bought the used helicopters and parts at a steep discount, paying about $67,000. One Sea Dragon is worth about $60 million new.

“This is the result of a lot of hard work and cooperation on both sides,” said Kelly Burdick, a spokeswoman for Naval Air Systems Command, which is responsible for developing, equipping and maintaining Navy and Marine Corps aircraft.


DISTRESS SIGNAL: The Sea Dragon flies on


The Navy’s Sea Dragon program – initially set for retirement a decade ago – has long been hampered by a shortage of replacement parts, a problem that came to a head earlier this year after the service ordered fleet-wide inspections and repairs to fix potentially dangerous fuel lines and wiring bundles.

Some of the parts needed to make those repairs are not available and are no longer made by manufacturers, leaving two time-consuming options: Make the parts, or custom-order them from suppliers. As a result, a majority of the Sea Dragon fleet based at Norfolk Naval Station remains grounded. Some parts from those helicopters were cannibalized and sent overseas to streamline repairs on seven that are forward-deployed in South Korea and Bahrain.

Although the effort to acquire Japan’s used helicopters predates the current situation by several years, “certainly these parts are going to help the fleet,” Burdick said.

It’s unusual but not unprecedented for the U.S. military – by far the largest defense spender in the world – to seek used military equipment from other nations. In 2011, the U.S. acquired dozens of retired Harrier jets from Britain. Most of the time, though, the U.S. is the one shipping used equipment to other countries.

The deal was completed May 13. Included in the acquisition: two airframes, 12 engines and two sets of tow booms and ramp boxes – components needed to perform the helicopter’s mine-sweeping mission.

The Pilot first reported on the negotiations to buy used Japanese helicopters last year after obtaining internal emails detailing the proposed deal. At the time, Navy and Japanese military officials declined to comment.

Japan ultimately agreed to the deal “based on our nations’ mutual security needs,” Burdick said Wednesday. It was 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. Japan decided to retire its fleet of 11 Sea Dragons last decade as the aircraft approached the end of its planned service life, replacing it with a smaller and more efficient Italian-built helicopter, the MCH-101.

The U.S. Navy had planned to retire its Sea Dragons – its only mine-clearing aircraft – around the same time. But after a failed effort to outfit a smaller helicopter with mine-clearing equipment, top brass determined the Sea Dragons would need to continue flying until 2025.

Of the more than 40 Sea Dragons purchased by the U.S., 28 remain in service.

The Navy has not ruled out the possibility of purchasing more of Japan’s Sea Dragons, Burdick said.

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