Why the CH-53 is so special: In January, Israel’s Defense Ministry signed an agreement with the U.S. government to purchase 12 CH-53K helicopters. The “King Stallions” are designed by Lockheed Martin, and Israel will become the first foreign customer to buy them. The $2 billion deal will help Israel replace the country’s rapidly aging fleet of CH-53D Yasur helicopters.
Throughout May, the Israel Defense Forces carried out the largest military drills in the country’s history. Dubbed Chariots of Fire, the series of planned simulations highlighted the IDF’s superior air defense capabilities in drills over the Mediterranean. However, the Israeli Air Force’s fleet of 53-year old helicopters is reaching the end of its life span and no longer provides the cutting-edge deterrence capabilities the IDF wants.
Originally delivered to Israel in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the heavy lift cargo helicopter has remained a mainstay of Israel’s air force. Sikorsky Aircraft, a Lockheed Martin company, designed the helicopter, which was initially developed for use by the U.S. Marine Corps. The Yasur fleet saw combat during the 1969 War of Attrition and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The helicopters were used to evacuate wounded soldiers, rescue downed pilots behind enemy lines, and move artillery batteries. The helicopters were upgraded by Israel Aerospace Industries in the 1980s to improve their avionics. Today, the Super Yasur can carry a payload of 27,000 pounds and can fly at 20 knots.
A Formidable Follow-up
The Yasur fleet has served the IDF well in numerous missions over the last few decades, but now its outdated frames are ready to retire. According to the Jerusalem Post, the State Comptroller’s Report in March 2019 indicated that if Israel’s air force did not replace the Yasur fleet soon, the helicopters could endanger human life. Indeed, this year, a Yasur helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing in the West Bank region, and its crew escaped just minutes before the airframe burst into flames.
The first deliveries of the CH-53K helicopters are planned for 2025. According to Naval Air Systems Command, “In addition to the aircraft, the agreement includes T408-GE-400 engines; facilities study, design and construction; spare and repair parts; support and test equipment; publications and technical documentation; aircrew and maintenance training; U.S. government and contractor engineering, technical and logistics support services; and other related elements of logistics and program support.”
The CH-53K helicopters are equipped with three engines that make it more formidable than its predecessors. With a cruising speed of 261 km per hour and a maximum payload of 36,000 pounds, the CH-53s are faster and can deliver more ordinance per mission than the aging Yasurs. The new helicopters also hold enhanced composite rotor blades and a larger aircraft cabin, making them the heaviest helicopters used by U.S. military forces.
The Israeli government’s purchase of the CH-53Ks coincides with its efforts to expand the IDF’s arsenal to better deter present and future threats. Israel also agreed to procure two KC-46As and additional F-35 Joint Strike Fighters last year, further advancing its air capabilities.
Maya Carlin is a Middle East Defense Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.