Germany’s years-long effort to replenish its rotary-wing transport capabilities got a boost on May 11 when the U.S. State Department gave formal notification of approval of a government-to-government Foreign Military Sales (FMS) request for 60 CH-47F Block II Chinook heavy-lift helicopters. The estimated cost of the potential buy is $8.5 billion, which would include the helicopters, their engines (plus spares), and all key subsystems and equipment.
.@StateDept authorizes a proposed Foreign Military Sale #FMS to #Germany for their purchase of up to 60 CH-47F Chinook Helicopters & related equipment for an estimated cost of up to $8.5 billion. #FMSUpdate – https://t.co/9sfani7msP pic.twitter.com/WppDWA0tjq
— Political-Military Affairs, US Dept of State (@StateDeptPM) May 11, 2023
The backdrop to Germany’s Chinook selection and acquisition process is a tortured one.
The German Air Force currently relies on a fleet of 1970s-legacy VFW-Sikorsky CH-53G-series Stallions to perform the medium- and heavy-lift missions. These were to be replaced under the Heavy Transport Helicopter Program (Schwere Transporthubschrauber, or STH).
The program was borne out of the failure to bring a prospective Franco-German heavy-lift helicopter initiative forward.
In January 2016, the Bundeswehr shortlisted two heavy-lift options to meet the STH requirement to replace the existing fleet of CH-53s: Boeing’s CH-47 Chinook and Sikorsky’s CH-53K King Stallion.
A formal issuance of a Request for Proposals (RFP) for 44 units was expected in 2017, but instead slipped into 2019. Responses followed from Boeing and Lockheed Martin-Sikorsky by the January 13, 2020, deadline.
But ultimately the entire initiative was scrapped, with an announcement of this decision posted via a press release from the Federal Ministry of Defense on September 29, 2020.
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” during Germany’s COVID-era budgetary climate.
Once revisited, the Defense Ministry opted for a straightforward purchase with next to zero German-specific modifications thrown into the mix.
The urgency of the requirement was brought to the fore when Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Germany opted to move ahead with the acquisition of Boeing’s CH-47 Chinook, with an announcement by then-Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht to German lawmakers made on June 1, 2022. The need for airborne transport capability in both fixed- and rotary-wing aspects remained an acute issue for Germany’s ability to deploy forces externally. Therefore, the goal of securing a heavy-lift transport helicopter contract was accelerated to the end of 2022.
This deadline has already been exceeded, but in the case of Germany – with any project costing at least EUR25 million subject to approval by the Budget Committee of the Bundestag (federal parliament) – such slippage in desired timeframes is part of the dysfunctional norm of national military procurement projects.