Special budget could provide funding for Sikorsky heavylifter, with Chinook and EH101 hovering as alternatives

Taiwan could become the first export customer for Sikorsky's planned CH-53X heavylift helicopter, with the type under consideration to meet a new marine corps requirement for around 12 minesweeping and transport aircraft.

Anticipating the CH-53X programme will be launched by the US Marine Corps later this month, Sikorsky is offering Taiwan a potential early purchase of the new aircraft, instead of its older model CH-53E Super Stallion.

CH-53X development awaits the approval of the Pentagon's Joint Requirements Oversight Council. An acquisition strategy has also been prepared for approval by US Navy acquisition chief John Young, with development expected to start next year under an initial $103 million budget.

Industry sources say that the US government is asking Taiwan to approve a CH-53Xpurchase as early as this year by adding the aircraft to a special defence budget, which is worth NT$611 billion ($18 billion).

Sources say that about NT$100 billion has been freed in the budget because Taiwan has decided against any local production of submarines and will instead import them directly from the USA.

The special budget, which has been approved by the cabinet, but still requires legislature approval, also includes three Lockheed Martin/Raytheon Patriot Advanced Capability-3 air-defence missile systems and 12 refurbished ex-US Navy Lockheed Martin P-3C Orion anti-submarine warfare aircraft.

However, sources say a decision to add the CH-53Xs to this package using funds freed from the submarine deal is feasible, but unlikely, and that the USMC helicopter requirement may not be funded for another two to five years. Taiwan already has several requirements competing for scarce funds, including its planned purchase of new attack and command-and-control helicopters.

Sources expect the long-anticipated contract for 30 new attack helicopters to be delayed until at least 2006 because of insufficient funds in the 2005 budget. Boeing's AH-64D Apache is considered the favourite for the deal, having outscored Bell's AH-1Z in a yet-to-be approved cost and operational effectiveness analysis study completed early this year (Flight International, 13-19 July).

Sources expect the analysis to be resubmitted for approval in the next few months, setting the stage for a platform selection decision early next year and a contract award during 2006.

A CH-53X purchase would allow Taiwan's marine corps to reintroduce an aviation unit, but the aircraft - designed to improve gross weight hover performance by 30% compared with the E model - will not be operational for another seven to 10 years.

The CH-53E's only export customer, Japan, has already selected AgustaWestland's EH101 to replace its fleet of 11 minesweeping helicopters. A variant of Boeing's CH-47 Chinook is another potential alternative should Taiwan reject the CH-53X proposal.



Source: Flight International