The Marines Have a New Helicopter – and It Costs as Much as an F-35
Policy + Politics

The Marines Have a New Helicopter – and It Costs as Much as an F-35

Staff Sgt. Gabriela Garcia via Wikimedia Commons

Besides a nagging scandal over photos of naked Marines being shared on Facebook, life is good for the Corps. Retired Marine General Jim Mattis, who is revered by his former warriors, is now Defense Secretary, and troop levels could expand by some 12,000 under President Donald Trump.

Related: Why the Marines Need More F-35s in a Hurry

And as a fighting force, the Marines are on track to become even more potent – backed up by F-35 fighters and now one of the most powerful and expensive helicopters ever built, the CH-53K King Stallion.

How costly is the whirlybird scheduled to be operational by 2019? The current estimate is about $122 million per unit – about 22 percent higher than the early price tag was initially projected to be. That might make it the world’s most expensive military helicopter.

But a Marines spokesperson points out that the "acquisition" cost is far higher than the average procurement cost.

Here’s how early costs for the new helicopter compares with:

  • $122.8 million for the Marine version of the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35B. The price tag for the lowest-cost version of the fighter, the F-35A, is expected to decrease to about $80 million after production ramps up.

  • $149 million for the entire 2016 budget of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which the Trump administration wants to eliminate entirely.

  • $12 million for the four trips Trump has taken to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida since becoming president – or about $130 million a year if he keeps jetting south at the same rate for the rest of the year.

  • $250 million in proposed budget cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on March 10, Marine Lt. Gen. Gary Thomas said the per-unit cost of the King Stallion is expected to drop to below $89 million when it is in full production between 2019 and 2022. The Marines spokesperson put the "recurring flyaway" cost even lower, at $87 million a unit.

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There is little doubt that the King Stallion, built by Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky division, will be a workhorse. It can lift 13.5 tons, carry a couple of dozen combat troops and transport a Humvee. The Marines want about 200 of them.