Sikorsky will miss out on scrapped helicopter, but still getting large share of military spending

CT Insider

By: Alexander Soule

February 20, 2024

Sikorsky may have missed out that deal, but will still get a boost from the Army's request for additional Black Hawk helicopters. Sikorsky losing out on the potential scout helicopter and a contract that would have had the Connecticut company producing the future replacement for the Black Hawk, however, begs the question what the future holds for Sikorsky and whether there is enough work on the table for the manufacturer.

In fiscal year 2023, Sikorsky saw its smallest revenue request from the U.S. Department of Defense in five years according to the Pentagon's annual forecast of production needs. This comes after Sikorsky completed the new VH-92A Patriot helicopter fleet for the White House and with Black Hawk output down.

But Sikorsky nevertheless dominated DOD's wish list for vertical-lift aircraft in the same year as it hit full production of the new CH-53K King Stallion helicopter for the Marine Corps, accounting for 64 percent of all spending for new aircraft that year according to a CT Insider review of DOD strategic acquisition reports.

“Sikorsky has a robust backlog as well as future business pipeline with Black Hawk, CH-53K, MH-60Rs and Combat Rescue Helicopter platforms," the company said in a statement. "The orders backlog extends beyond 2027, and we are seeing continued strong demand globally to build on that backlog in the years ahead. We are seeing international interest in our X2 aircraft, which we have developed over 15 years of testing and flying with more than $1 billion invested.”

The increase was due to King Stallion production as well as Bell and Boeing having completed the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor fleets for the Marines and the Air Force. Ospreys have been grounded the past three months after a crash off the Japan coast that killed eight Special Forces Operations personnel, with an official telling the Associated Press earlier this month that investigators believe they have discovered a mechanical issue that caused the crash.

While Bell is now gearing up to make a new fleet of tilt-rotors for the Army that would take on missions performed by Black Hawks today, it will be years before those aircraft begin entering service. Gabe Camarillo, under secretary of the Army, told CT Insider this month the Army was also taking into account as well how Sikorsky could take a major hit with no new major program beyond the King Stallion.

"We faced the very real possibility that there was a production cliff after [fiscal year] '27 when the current, multi-year contract on Black Hawks runs out," Camarillo said. "We're going to be able to not only supply those to a greater number of our combat aviation brigades, but also to provide them to Army National Guard units that were previously slated to get the UH-60V model, and that variant was actually being generated out of existing air frames down in Corpus Christi. We're doing away with that program and we're now going to replace that with brand-new 'Mike' model helicopters that will be coming out of Sikorsky's production lines in Connecticut."

Replacements and jobs

Today, U.S. military branches maintain nearly 2,200 helicopters based on the Black Hawk design, including Seahawks and Knighthawks for the Navy, Pave Hawk and Jolly Green II helicopters for the Air Force, and a small number of Whitehawk helicopters for the White House. That does not include more than 40 Jayhawk helicopters used by the Coast Guard.

The U.S. military did not field more than 800 of any other model of aircraft at last report, with the AH-64 Apache Longbow attack helicopter falling just short of that number along with F-16 and F/A-18 fighter jets.

This month, the Army backed out of its plans for a new reconnaissance helicopter, citing rapid evolutions in drones which are cheaper, stealthier and do not put pilots at risk in combat zones. In an unclassified document published last March, DOD noted its efforts to improve the survivability of Black Hawks and other helicopters used by special force units, given what it called "an extensive and sophisticated ground based air defense system and an upgraded air-to-air capability targeted against helicopters."

Those evolving combat realities helped drive the decision to cancel the scout helicopter, Camarillo said, prompting at least one more run of new Black Hawk helicopters after Sikorsky completes its current contract in two years time.

The Osprey had eclipsed Black Hawk spending in most fiscal years dating back to 2008, with the Pentagon eventually purchasing more than 460 Ospreys at a program cost of $54 billion. Bell's parent company Textron acknowledged last month that the Osprey workforce took the brunt of more than 700 job cuts announced last year, while saying it would add back jobs over time as it hires engineers to develop systems for the new V-280 Valor tilt-rotor for the Army.

Lockheed Martin confirmed nearly 180 job cuts at Sikorsky last November on the heels of 800 announced last spring at the larger rotary and mission systems unit that includes Sikorsky. As of Friday, Sikorsky had less than 50 open jobs, half of them in Connecticut. A Lockheed Martin spokesperson gave no immediate projections on whether Sikorsky would hire up in advance of any new contract for UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters, and when that might occur.

“Sikorsky will remain a vibrant part of the Connecticut economy and a source of capability that enables our customers’ missions around the world," Sikorsky said in a statement. "At this time, we are beginning a thorough analysis to determine specific impacts to our workforce as a result of this decision.”

New Pentagon purchases replace aircraft hitting retirement that are sold to other nations or scrapped, with any resulting revenue applied to new ones. More than 90 Sikorsky helicopters were slated to hit their sunset in the 2023 fiscal year,  according to the most recent estimates published by DOD. That compared to just over 60 made by Bell and Boeing used by the Navy, Marines and U.S. Special Operations Command.

The Army pared 24 Black Hawk helicopters in fiscal 2023, according to the Pentagon's annual analysis of force structure changes, most of them UH-60L models that Sikorsky began producing in 1989 along with a few older models.

The Air Force transitioned more than three dozen HH-60G Pave Hawk rescue helicopters out of its air wings to make way for Jolly Green II replacements from Sikorsky. In this year's U.S. House of Representative's version of the proposed National Defense Authorization Act, language was inserted that would prohibit the Air Force from making any funding decision that could "terminate" Jolly Green II production lines in Stamford. The Senate version of the NDAA under negotiation did not include similar language.

The Navy phased out 20 CH-53E Sea Stallion transport helicopters last year used by the Marine Corps. During a storm last week in California, a Sea Stallion crash killed five Marines, with the military having yet to release a suspected cause of the crash as of Friday morning.

The Navy also jettisoned three VH-3D Sea King helicopters used for White House duty, and five UH-60N helicopters that are used to train pilots who fly the VH-60 Whitehawk for the White House. Also hitting retirement were a pair of Navy Seahawk maritime helicopters and two MH-53E Sea Dragons designed to sweep sea lanes clear of mines for Navy ships.

The U.S. Navy has been studying whether to extend the shelf life of some 525 Seahawk and Knighthawk helicopters in the fleet, or purchase replacements which could put Sikorsky in the running for another big contract later this decade. Sikorsky continues to produce Seahawk helicopters in Stratford for international militaries, according to Lockheed Martin spokesperson Melissa Chadwick.

And Sikorsky hopes to land larger international contracts as well for the CH-53K King Stallion, with Israel having increased its CH-53K commitment to 18 helicopters from a dozen initially, and Germany weighing a fleet of as many as 50 or more heavy-lift helicopters that Sikorsky hopes to produce.

The King Stallion now dominates Pentagon helicopter spending, with the Marines eyeing as many as 200 King Stallions in all, at a cost of $35 billion according to the Pentagon's most recent public cost estimate.

By comparison, the Army's most recent contract for Black Hawk helicopters totaled $2.4 billion for 122 aircraft over five years. That had been expected to be the last-ever big Black Hawk purchase for the military toward its original goal of about 1,375 UH-60M multi-mission and HH-60M medical airlift helicopters, at an estimated program cost of $21.4 billion.

Includes prior reporting by Luther Turmelle

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