Shortly after President Trump took office in 2017, the U.S. Army certified to Congress that upgrades of its CH-47F Chinook heavy lifter were a high priority for which funding had been set aside in future budgets.
A year later, the service began to signal prime contractor Boeing that the upgrades had become a bill-payer for other projects and that the Army would cancel the upgrade program.
Ever since that surprising reversal, the Army has been fighting a losing battle to convince Congress its plans for Chinook (or lack thereof) make sense.
Each year the service tries to withdraw the upgrade money, and each year Congress puts money back to keep the program on track.
Perhaps it is time for the Army to stop wasting political capital on this hapless quest.
Killing the biggest program at the biggest industrial complex in southeastern Pennsylvania isn’t likely to be any more popular with the Biden White House than it is with Congress.
Boeing says 18,000 jobs could be destroyed across the Chinook supply chain if the Army has its way.
But the real crux of the matter isn't jobs. It's the incoherent operational logic of what the Army proposes to do.
Consider a few salient points.
First, Chinook is by far the heaviest lifter in the Army fleet. It is expected to remain in service for another 40 years, and at the moment, the service has no real plan for replacing it.
Second, without proposed Block II upgrades, Chinook will be unable to lift either the Army’s light howitzer or the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, successor to the Humvee.
Third, in its current configuration, Chinook's ability to lift other heavy cargos will be deficient in the high/hot operating conditions common in places such as Southeast Asia and the Persian Gulf.
Fourth, the Army has already paid to develop Block II upgrades and wants to go forward with making the improvements to its special operations fleet while denying them to the rest of the force.
Finally, the program is on schedule and on budget. Three prototypes incorporating the upgrades are in testing.
Boeing warned Army leaders when the prospect of cancellation first was raised that it could result in closing one of the few military rotorcraft production lines in the country.
The company says it needs to build at least 18 Chinooks per year to sustain its Pennsylvania line and the 280 suppliers that feed it.
Army leaders responded that they would find foreign buyers to make up for the loss of Army work. But in the three years since the Army turned against the upgrades, no new foreign sales have been booked.
So, Boeing now forecasts that production will fall below the minimum sustaining rate in 2023 if upgrades are not funded.
At that point, production of the baseline Block I configuration for the Army will have ceased, and foreign sales booked years ago will be dwindling.
All that will be left is six upgraded Chinooks per year for special operators—barely a third of the number needed to keep the line intact and suppliers engaged.
When the prospect of Block II cancellations first surfaced, the company predicted that foreign demand would dry up once it became clear the Army was walking away from improvements to the venerable helicopter.
So far, that is exactly what has happened.
It’s important to understand that the proposed upgrades don’t just preserve the ability to air assault heavy equipment.
The Block II design includes an improved drive train, a new fuel system, digital flight controls, and an enhanced electric system.
That’s in addition to the advanced rotor blades that restore 1,500 pounds of lift lost to when self-protection equipment added to the helicopter’s weight.
Under the original plan, the Army would have bought these improvements for 473 Chinooks operated by the regular Army, in addition to the 69 used by special operators.
But with the Army now committed to buying only the special ops helicopters, what had looked like 20 years of continuous work at Boeing’s rotorcraft complex instead looks like the end of the road for Chinook production.
To make matters worse, the collapse of Chinook production—the company currently turns out one CH-47F per week—will drive up the cost of V-22 fuselages made at the same site since they would have to absorb most of the plant's overhead.
All of which begs the question of what the Army’s plan is for its only heavy lifter.
Some have suggested the Army might come back later and restart Block II upgrades, but that is a fantasy: in the current budget environment, once the production line and supply chain fall below minimum sustaining rates, they are unlikely to ever be reconstituted.
Some critical suppliers are likely to exit the business for good, and replacing lost skills would be prohibitively expensive.
So, of course, Congress, especially the local legislative delegations, are skeptical. That includes members from three different states—Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware—all of whom have constituents working at the plant.
Rather than fighting this losing battle once again in the 2022 budget cycle, the Army ought to face the reality that Congress isn’t going to embrace its plan for killing Chinook upgrades.
If it doesn’t change course, the danger in an increasingly tight budget environment is that legislators will start finding the money for Chinook upgrades in programs that are a high priority for the service, such as Future Vertical Lift.
Loren Thompson writes on the strategic, economic and business implications of defense spending as the Chief Operating Officer of the non-profit Lexington Institute and Chief Executive Officer of Source Associates. Prior to holding my present positions, I was Deputy Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and taught graduate-level courses in strategy, technology and media affairs at Georgetown. I have also taught at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. I hold doctoral and masters degrees in government from Georgetown University and a bachelor of science degree in political science from Northeastern University. Disclosure: The Lexington Institute receives funding from many of the nation’s leading defense contractors, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and United Technologies.