If the CH-53K King Stallion were a new car, its sticker price would be $87.1 million, but with title, tax and tags it would run $131 million per helicopter.
The Marine Corps ultimately plans to buy 200 CH-53Ks by 2029 to replace its fleet of aging CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters, which have the most serious readiness problems of all aircraft in the Marine Corps' current fleet.
Earlier this month, Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., asserted that the price for each CH-53K had ballooned from $87.1 million to $122 million per helicopter, which is made by Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company.
"So that cost growth, multiplied times 200, is a heck of a lot of money," Tsongas said at a March 10 House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee hearing. "And even if there is no additional cost growth, it seems worth pointing out that $122 million per aircraft in 2006 dollars exceeds the current cost of an F-35, an aircraft for the Air Force, by a significant margin."
The Marine Corps responded that the per-unit cost for the CH-53K has not increased, but that, with any aircraft, the first ones built are always more expensive than the rest due to non-recurring engineering and tooling costs needed to stand up the production line.
"The first time you do something, maybe you're not so good at doing it," Marine Col. Henry Vanderborght said Monday at the Navy League's annual Sea-Air-Space symposium.
"You get better over time. There's process improvements with aircraft after aircraft; we find more efficient ways to do things; there may be some material changes that occur during the production run – and all of those things put together allow the cost to go down as you acquire your units."
But the $87.1 million figure does not include ancillary and development costs, said Vanderborght, program manager for Marine Corps and Navy heavy lift helicopters.
The CH-53K costs include $19.2 billion in procurement costs, including ancillary equipment, such as engine covers; labor costs for engineers; spare parts and other expenses, Vanderborght said.
When you add the $6.9 billion in research and development for the CH-53K, you get a total cost of $26.1 billion, which comes to about $131 million for each helicopter, he said.
However, the cost of each helicopter could go down further based on foreign military sales, Vanderborght said. The Germans have expressed interest in buying up to 41 CH-53Ks, he said.
"You add another 25 percent to your production run, production unit cost goes down," Vanderborght said.
Having foreign militaries such as the Germans purchase CH-53Ks would also allow the Marine Corps to share sustainment costs with allies, he said.