View Full Version : Marines Struggle on High-Profile Programs

08-19-2009, 03:18 PM
This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.

A virtual gag order is in place by order of the U.S. Marine Corps deputy commandant of aviation, Lt. Gen. George Trautman, on two of the service's biggest programs: the new CH-53K heavy-lift helicopter and the V-22 Osprey.

The Marines have clamped down on news about the CH-53K program since June, when cost overruns were announced by the program manager, Capt. Rick Muldoon, and confirmed by Trautman. The irony is that the construction of the heavy lifter is reportedly going well. Sikorsky recently announced the arrival of the first set of 8,500 supplier parts that will go into building the three-engine aircraft. And General Electric initiated the first bench tests of the GE38 turboshaft engine in July. Five ground-test engines will be used for more than 5,000 hr. of testing. Another 20 flight-test engines will be used on the CH-53K developmental aircraft. Seven prototype aircraft will be delivered during system design and development -- four for engine development vehicles. The remaining three will serve as a dedicated ground-test vehicle, a static test article and a fatigue test platform.

The CH-53K will be the newest, beefiest and first fly-by-wire helicopter in the Marines' arsenal when it flies in 2011. The concern is how far the cost overruns will push the first flight date and squadron fielding date, scheduled for 2015. And the Marines may not know themselves.

Sources tell Aviation Week that Trautman has ordered Muldoon to hold off on any further schedule or budget updates until the budget is complete on Capitol Hill. Trautman could not be reached for comment.

The pressure to ensure the program goes well increases as demand for the heavy lifting -- and high-altitude -- talents of the CH-53K increase in Afghanistan. Potential international buyers are tracking the program's progress as well. France and Germany have expressed interest in the CH-53K for their heavy-lift requirements, and Muldoon says he expects inquiries from Turkey, Singapore, Taiwan and Israel (AW&ST June 22, p. 54).

The V-22 Osprey has faced its share of problems over the years, but after three deployments in Iraq and a squadron fielded on the USS Bataan, the Marines seemed to have conquered most doubts. At least until a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report detailing the aircraft's shortcomings in reliability and maintainability came out in June, followed closely by a hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in which Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) declared, "It's time to put the Osprey out of its misery." What happened? Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a former U.S. Navy officer, claims a lack of transparency on the part of the Marines has angered lawmakers. Detailed after-action reports were made available after the aircraft's first deployment, but information on the subsequent deployments has been far more difficult to elicit from the service. "The Marines should have come forward with the data and we'd have had fewer problems," says Sestak. A review of the V-22 program was conducted in late July by officials in the Pentagon's acquisition directorate, but any issues that may have arisen from that conversation have not been made public either.

Reliability and maintainability issues on the V-22 are getting some attention, however. On July 15, Naval Air Systems Command (Navair) in Patuxent River, Md., awarded the Bell-Boeing Joint Project Office a $24.5-million time-and-material contract for delivery of "safety correction actions, reliability and maintainability improvements and quick reaction capability improvements." A $6-million contract also went to Northrop Grumman for configuration upgrades to the V-22's infrared countermeasures.

This may do little to appease Towns, however, who has said he will go to the House Appropriations Committee with his own assessment of the program. In an atmosphere of increased belt tightening and a Defense Secretary who has little patience with what he sees as bloated or unnecessary programs, the Marines would do well to throw some light not only on what is happening with CH-53K and V-22, but what they're going to do about it.