Heavy Lift Helicopter Program: Navy Should Address Cost and Schedule Risks

GAO-21-208 Published: Mar 04, 2021. Publicly Released: Mar 04, 2021.
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Fast Facts

The Marine Corps needs "heavy lift" helicopters to move vehicles, equipment, and people from ships to inland areas. The CH-53K helicopter, in development since 2005, has faced cost overruns and schedule delays.

We found the CH-53K schedule doesn't fully meet best practices for developing and keeping reliable project schedules. Also, overlap between testing and buying larger numbers of helicopters means problems revealed during testing would have to be fixed on more helicopters already built. Such retrofits are costly.

We recommended ensuring the CH-53K schedule is reliable and limiting the number of helicopters purchased until testing is done.

Marine Corps CH-53K Heavy Lift Helicopter

Military helicopter

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What GAO Found

Fifteen years into development, the CH-53K program has made progress in testing the aircraft. Program documentation indicates that there is a moderate risk of not demonstrating the required levels of reliability or payload carrying weight by the end of operational testing.

The technical issues identified during testing caused program milestones to slip. For example, the full-rate production decision was delayed by nearly 7 years—from December 2015 to November 2022. CH-53K total program costs also increased by nearly $15.3 billion since the program began due to technical issues and a quantity increase fielded helicopters from 156 to 200.

The program faces several challenges going forward.

  • First, the schedule for completing the development of the CH-53K does not meet all of the leading practices, which makes the schedule unreliable. Specifically, GAO found that the master schedule is not fully credible or well-constructed. For example, the schedule indicates there is more flexibility in the schedule than it truly has, which can affect the ability to change allocated resources appropriately to meet schedule milestones.

  • Second, the program faces potential further cost increases due to concurrency—or overlap between testing and procurement—which has increased due to delays in the completion of testing. In previous reviews of weapon systems, GAO found that while some concurrency is understandable, it can also result in cost increases and schedule delays, and deny timely, critical information to policy makers. Concurrency, coupled with plans for increased numbers of helicopters to be produced, beyond the six per year currently being built, could result in costly retrofits to helicopters built before the completion of operational testing. This testing will provide decision makers needed information on the resolution of the technical issues facing the program (see figure).

CH-53K Helicopter Testing and Procurement, Fiscal Years 2017-2030

CH-53K Helicopter Testing and Procurement, Fiscal Years 2017-2030

Why GAO Did This Study

The Marine Corps is replacing its aging CH-53E helicopters with the CH-53K heavy-lift helicopter. Designed as an evolution of the CH-53E, the CH-53K is intended to transport armored vehicles, equipment, and personnel from ships to deep inland locations. The CH-53K program office is overseen by the Department of the Navy. As we have previously reported, the program has experienced delayed milestones and cost increases from almost its inception in 2005, in part, due to technical issues.

GAO was asked to review the CH-53K program. This report examines the program's (1) progress toward completing testing and demonstrating system experience, (2) schedule and cost performance to date, and (3) potential future challenges.

GAO analyzed cost, schedule, performance, test, manufacturing, and planning documents; and interviewed officials from the CH-53K program office, other defense offices—such as the Defense Contract Management Agency—the testing community, and the prime contractor, Sikorsky.

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GAO recommends that the Navy take steps to ensure the CH-53K schedule is credible and well-constructed, and that the Navy should not exceed the current annual procurement of six helicopters per year until the completion of initial operational test and evaluation. The Department of Defense did not concur with these recommendations. GAO continues to believe that the recommendations are valid, as discussed in this report.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of the Navy The Secretary of the Navy should ensure that the project's integrated master schedule meets the credible and well-constructed characteristics of a reliable schedule, as defined in GAO's schedule guide. (Recommendation 1)
The Department of Defense did not agree with our recommendation that the master schedule needed to be updated. While DOD stated the master schedule may not fully meet all criteria as defined in the GAO guide, the Department asserts that the CH-53K program's schedule is well-constructed and credible and therefore, reliable. In June 2022, a program official stated the master schedule is still used and maintained and there are no plans to make any modifications to its existing, fundamental construction. GAO asserts our recommendation is still valid. As GAO previously stated, we are not suggesting any additional resources be used to update the master schedule, but rather the leading practices should be incorporated during regular schedule maintenance activities. The program could incorporate leading practices into its master schedule when it creates the new acquisition baseline, as required, for the full rate decision which is scheduled for late 2022. Without taking this opportunity, the program is increasing the likelihood of missing important information that a reliable schedule can provide to DOD, the Congress, and other stakeholders in order for them to make key decisions.
Department of the Navy The Secretary of the Navy should not exceed the current level of annual procurement of six helicopters per year until initial operational test and evaluation is completed. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Not Implemented
DOD did not agree with this recommendation. DOD stated that the reduction in the planned quantities in fiscal years 2021 and 2022 poses a greater risk to the affordability of the program than the risk posed by the remaining technical challenges. We continue to believe that our recommendation to hold production at current levels until testing can be completed is valid and reasonable, given the program's history of increasing concurrency and related costs. We maintain that it would be prudent to maintain the current level of production until the completion of the initial operational test and evaluation, when the program is able to more completely evaluate the sufficiency of the CH-53K. However, the Navy awarded a contract for lot 5 helicopters with a total quantity of 9 and increase of 2 over what the program originally planned. Further, within that same contract, the Navy negotiated the purchase of nine aircraft for lot 6 and plans to exercise that option in the fiscal year 2022.

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