NASHVILLE , Tenn. — The Army has decided not to buy the next variant of the CH-47F Chinook cargo helicopter for the conventional force. But on Wednesday, confusion about the future of the platform suddenly seemed murky, with a key Army leader indicated that decision could change down the road while another said there’s no going back.
And while it remains unclear what the Army might ultimately do, Boeing is fighting to build its Chinook Block II variant as planned, arguing that even if the service ultimately decided to field the version with a new rotor blade design and transmission to the active force several years from now, it might be too late to repair the damage to its industrial base and production line.
The Army decided in its fiscal year 2020 budget request that the Block II Chinook would be one of the billpayers for its high priority modernization efforts. The service is trying to field two brand new helicopters to replace part of the AH-64 Apache and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter fleets in record time, while also trying to develop and procure long-range precision fires, a new air-and-missile defense system, manned and robotic combat vehicles and revamp its network.
The service said it would only buy Chinook Block II helicopters in the form of the G-model — a Special Operations version. Only 69 of those will be built. Boeing is already under contract to build engineering and manufacturing development versions of the CH-47F Block II and to begin building G-model aircraft.
Boeing took pains at the the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual summit, hosting an early morning media briefing April 16 at the show, to hammer home the negative impact stopping the Block II line for a number of years might have on the company, its suppliers and the Army itself.
Just a few hours later, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, who is nominated to become the next service chief, told reporters the Army is “comfortable” with where it is with the Block II decision, but he tempered that, adding, “I think in two to three years, we will have a better idea about where we are, as far as developing the helicopters we talked about, and that will drive that decision.”
But over at the Pentagon on the same day, Army Secretary Mark Esper told another group of reporters that the service would not be rethinking its plans to build CH-47 Block IIs for the conventional force.
“We made our decision. We understand the pros and cons of it,” Esper said, noting the Chinook F-model is the youngest in the fleet. “We’ve met our acquisition objective and so what we need to do is invest that money into Future Vertical Lift.”
Esper stressed the need for the Army to procure an attack reconnaissance aircraft to fill a long vacant gap in capability and a long-range assault aircraft that can penetrate Russian and Chinese air defense systems. The Army is “not going to do it with the CH-47,” he said.
McConville, however, said the Army needed to see where it could get with its two future helicopter programs — the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) and the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) — before firming up a decision on its current fleet.
When it sees “aircraft flying,” he said, the service, “will have a much better idea what they can and can’t do.”
Industrial base worries
In the meantime, the Army is working closely with industry to maintain the industrial base, McConville said. “There are some foreign military sales options, there is the Golf-model option,” he said, “and those are all coming together to help us keep our options and keep their options open as we go forward.”
Germany and Israel are in the market for cargo helicopters, and Boeing is competing for both. But for Boeing, that’s not going to be good enough.
“The reality of this is this is a production line that depends heavily on U.S. Army production,” Randy Rotte, Boeing’s director of business development for cargo helicopters, said.
There are over 900 Chinooks around the world and 542 of them are U.S. aircraft, he said. “All the internationals in the world, if they come back to upgrade to Block II, is going to have a hard time in any real quantities sustaining that production base,” Rotte said.
Boeing already had a plan to cope for a four year gap between the ramping down of Block I production and the ramping up of Block II. The reality of that delta has been known for some time and the company has had time to prepare, according to Chuck Dabundo, Boeing’s H-47 program manager.
The goal already to cope with that delta was to bridge the gap with international orders.
With no F-model Block II aircraft to build for the conventional force, he said, “it would be very difficult to fill a bathtub that wide,” if another five years went by with no orders for the active Army.
And with that level of uncertainty going forward for the Chinook, Rotte and Dabundo said, the industrial base could suffer in a variety of ways which could result in losing entire suppliers permanently.
Asking a company to hold off supplying parts for a year is a challenge, Rotte said, but to ask them to hold off for five years or longer, “that is a business lifetime.”
And once those suppliers are gone or unable to produce the parts needed at an affordable quantity, Dabundo argued, replacements and spares for the 900-plus Chinooks flying around the world will get more and and more expensive.
When asked about the fears that Boeing has telegraphed, McConville said, “We have discussed it with Boeing now that the budget is in place and we are working with them for some innovative solutions” in order to move forward, but added, “we don’t have all of those worked out right now.”
But the problem isn’t just about supporting the industrial base. As Rotte noted, the Army does not have a plan to recapitalize the F-model fleet because Block II was supposed to accomplish that.
Boeing is now hoping to change the Army’s mind as it finalizes its FY21-25 budget plan and see a full restoration of funding to build Block II for the conventional force, according to Rotte and Dabundo.
The company is also lobbying on Capitol Hill to restore the $28 million it need in the FY20 budget to proceed as planned.
Additionally, Boeing continues efforts to think even farther afield, to a Block III version of the Chinook that would finally replace the 1970s-era T55 engine with something more powerful and efficient.
But, if the Army never buys Block II F-models, moving from Block I to a Block III version would be problematic, according to Rotte.
Block II established the additional structure to hold a more powerful engine, for example, he said.
“I’m not saying you can’t skip Block II and go straight to Block III,” Rotte said, but “there will be major repercussions to how you would lay that out” and would “require a complete rethinking of the strategy.”
Aaron Mehta in Washington contributed to this report.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts from Kenyon College.