IAF in desperate need for new heavy-lift helicopters. What’s the hold-up?
By Anna Ahronheim
It’s been over four years since the Israel Air Force announced it would be replacing its aging CH-53 Yasur helicopters, and though there are two frontrunners there has been little movement on the purchase.
With the IAF’s CH-53 Yasur helicopters nearing the age of 50 – several crashed in the past year – its replacement is the most pressing matter for the air force. According to sources, the air force and general staff are well aware of the need to choose a replacement for the Ya’sur.
First used by the IAF in 1969, the Yasur is the air force’s primary helicopter used to transport soldiers and equipment and have taken part in a wide variety of missions, including secret operations as well as search and rescue missions.
While the helicopters have been upgraded with new electronic and missile defense systems, the IAF still needs to replace them by 2025.
No one expected the CH-53 to fly for so long.
Last year the State Comptroller report recommended that the IAF replacing the aging aircraft as soon as possible as “prolonging the life of the Yasur is liable to endanger human life and may have significant operational implications and substantial maintenance costs.”
The air force should “consider purchasing the Ya’sur replacement option early so that it will be as close as possible to the date on which the memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the United States is implemented,” the report added.
The report was timely since over the past year there have been several serious accidents involving the Ya’sur, including one which saw the complete destruction of an aircraft after its engine caught on fire while en route to a training exercise in southern Israel.
And facing a severe shortage of spare parts, earlier this year the Defense Ministry procured five surplus US Navy CH-53s to cannibalize and be used as spare parts for Israel’s fleet of Ya’surs. But it’s not enough.
The IAF plans to procure some 20 new heavy-lift helicopters – in other words, one squadron – to replace the current Ya’sur squadron at the Tel Nof Base. The two options in the running are Lockheed Martin Sikorsky’s CH-53K King Stallion, a completely redesigned version of the Ya’sur, and Boeing’s CH-47F Chinook helicopter.
IAF pilots and technician teams have flown both possible replacements and have prepared comprehensive reports of their capabilities, projected availability, and life cycle costs. Sources have even told The Jerusalem Post that the IAF knows what platform it wants, and has known for several years.
So what’s the hold-up?
According to Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Ayish, senior vice president for Israeli Affairs at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), though Israel’s defense ministry and the military have had over four years to decide on “what platform they want, how many of them, and the sequence” in which to integrate them into the IAF, they want a general approval that will portray a framework that they can work with for the coming years and then come up with the platform they want.”
Former Air Force head and current Director-General of the Defense Ministry, Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Amir Eshel, who was essential in the decision-making process and procurement of the F-35, is now “trying to push it forward and execute the procurement deals,” Ayish said.
The IAF is also once again looking at procuring Bell Boeing’s V-22 Osprey as it believes that there is an operational need for between 12-14 aircraft which can take off and land like helicopters but fly like fixed-wing planes.
The V-22s are designed for sensitive, extensive missions both during times of war and routine.
According to a source familiar with the deals confirmed on Thursday that the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft is once again on the table and would possibly be part of the heavy-lift helicopter deal.
The multirole combat aircraft uses tiltrotor technology, combining the vertical performance of helicopters (such as take-off and landings) with the speed, altitude, and range of fixed-wing planes, making them the ideal aircraft for sensitive missions as they don’t need runways.
The current Memorandum of Understanding is up in 2028 and sources have stressed the urgency to make the purchases “right now” before it’s too late.
And though the IAF is facing budgetary issues, like the rest of the country which is struggling to cope with the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic, if the military and defense ministry don’t sign one of the options in the near future it risks the lives of IDF troops.
Is it really worth it? No. It’s not.
So nu? Make a decision already. Sign a deal. Before it’s too late.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post