The German Defense Ministry has opted to scrap its current competition for a heavy transport helicopter intended to serve as a replacement for the Bundeswehr’s aging fleet of 1970s-legacy VFW-Sikorsky CH-53GA/GS Stallions.
The decision to terminate the acquisition project came down to cost concerns as the Defense Ministry – which had touted the effort to procure an off-the-shelf platform as a fast and economical way to acquire high-end capability without “gold-plating” its requirement – concluded that the two submitted bids were “uneconomical” in Germany’s current COVID-era budgetary climate.
A downselect between the two bids – involving the Boeing CH-47 Chinook and Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallion – had been expected this year, with a contract to follow in 2021.
Instead, the German Heavy Transport Helicopter Program (Schwere Transporthubschrauber, or STH) for 40-60 units becomes a dead letter.
The citing of costs as a rationale for terminating a program touted only a year ago as affordable and non-splashy is both embarrassing and a severe setback for the German Defense Ministry’s effort to modernize a poorly equipped Bundeswehr. Despite its claims of a model procurement project, the Defense Ministry instead sought additional requirements throughout the process, including a decades-long maintenance agreement that would hold the contracting bidder to guaranteed serviceability benchmarks.
Not only does the project’s cancellation leave the German military without a heavy transport helicopter solution on the near-horizon (originally the plan was for deliveries of the winning bid to begin in 2023), but it raises the specter of whether this merely represents a ripple in a deeper pond relating to future large-capital German defense projects.
While the Defense Ministry still aims to replace the military’s CH-53GA/GS Stallions in a “timely manner” – however that elastic-sounding timeline figures in Berlin’s calculations – it will be done with changed specifications and the extension of delivery and initial operational dates. Meanwhile, the current CH-53 Stallion fleet will reach the end of its operational life in 2030.
The German government has consistently reiterated its goal of having the defense budget “rising to” 1.5 percent of GDP by 2025 as a means of fending off NATO critics – most loudly, but not solely, the Trump administration – who continue to see Berlin as a laggard when it comes to contributing to the common defense of the trans-Atlantic alliance. The latest announcement from the Defense Ministry certainly does nothing to reassure Germany’s frustrated allies that a fully capable, mission-ready Bundeswehr will soon emerge.