WASHINGTON — Boeing will put its newest CH-47F Chinook cargo helicopters with major upgrades through flight tests beginning next year as well as demonstrate a new engine and is setting the stage to bring autonomous capability to the heavy-lift aircraft.
While the service hones in on Future Vertical Lift aircraft geared toward replacing UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters and AH-64 attack helicopters as well as fill a gap left open when the Army retired its OH-58 Kiowa Warrior armed scout helicopters by the early to mid 2030s, the Vietnam-era Chinook is expected to keep flying well into the 2050s.
Replacing the heavy lift aircraft is last on the Army’s FVL development and procurement list. That program likely won’t initiate until the 2040s with initial production starting in the 2050s.
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So ensuring it remains capable, even in a fight against peer adversaries is paramount, according to Boeing.
“I think those near-peer threats are going to place a greater demand on cargo types of aircraft,” Chuck Dabundo, Boeing’s H-47 program manager, told Defense News in a recent interview. Chinooks will be increasingly expected to push up to the front lines in order to move equipment and troops where they need to be, he said.
And the current Chinooks are no longer capable of keeping up with the weight demands of payloads and, in some cases, unable to haul equipment — such as the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle or an extended range cannon system — that will be crucial to the multidomain fight.
An F-model Chinook, when it was first built was tasked to carry 16,000 pounds of payload at high-hot conditions — 4,000 feet in 95 degree temperatures — over a certain range, Randy Rotte, Boeing’s director of business development for cargo helicopters, said.
But over the last 10 to 15 years of operations, its become much heavier with aircraft survivability equipment, ballistic protection systems among other upgrades.
The Block II Chinook upgrades for Army and Special Operations will buy back some of the payload to enable the ground commander with more options, Rotte said.
With the upgrades — that include newly designed rotorblades, major changes to the drive system and other improvements like non-segmented fuel cells — the aircraft gets back roughly 4,000 pounds of additional load capacity.
This translates to being able to carry a JLTV with its underbelly armor versus foregoing that protection on the vehicle in order to transport it via Chinook, Rotte said. That also means the Army would be able to haul not just the old M777 howitzer but an extended range variant, which is predicted to weight 2,000 pounds more than the original variant with a Block II "F" model.
Additionally, the Chinook will have added range due to additional fuel capacity and be able to bring additional fuel internally to support refueling operations for ground combat vehicles operating on the front lines of a conflict.
While for Boeing it seems imperative the Chinook program continue to rapidly upgrade its capability since there is no cargo helicopter replacement on the horizon in the next 30-odd years, the company has been hearing murmurings that the Army may plan to use the Chinook Block II upgrades as a billpayer to cover the cost of some of its modernization priorities.
The company has been running analysis to see what the impact might be should the Army potentially slow the procurement of the upgraded F-model helicopters.
“One of the biggest concerns” when it comes to possible cuts to the program, Rotte said, is “we haven’t recapped Chinooks in forever.” While Black Hawks are recapitalized at about 48 aircraft a year, the Chinooks don’t have a similar plan.
“That was one of the huge benefits of Block II on its current timeline is you obviate the need of the recap because Block II is the recap,” Rotte said. “But if you delay Block II then it starts to put into question, well, now do we need to recap and if we are recapping are we really saving anything?”
Dabundo noted the Army conducted an analysis of alternatives for Block II ahead of the program a few years ago and found that the Block II upgrade would be cheaper than a recap process and the money spent would get more capability than just recapitalizing the fleet.
The Army approved the Chinook Block II effort to move into EMD phase in April 2017 and the program officially began in July 2017.
The first Chinook Block II aircraft was loaded into final assembly at Boeing’s Ridley Park, Pennsylvania, production facility in June this year with much fanfare.
Boeing will build three EMD aircraft for the Army with the first two on the final assembly line. The first aircraft will begin flying in the middle of next year, Dabundo said.
Boeing expects a production decision in July of 2021.
Ultimately, the Army plans to build 542 Block II F-model helicopters -- 473 F-models and 69 G-models for the Army’s special operators.
Building on the Block II effort already underway with the Army, Boeing is investing in looking at an engine that can replace the current T55 engine. “We have pretty much eked out as much performance as we think we can eke out,” of the current engine, Dabundo said, and with the Block II upgrades, it’s “the next logical step.”
Boeing and General Electric have entered into a cooperative program to test a new engine that will get 50 percent more horsepower and 15 percent more fuel efficiency than the current engine.
The companies plan to demonstrate the engine on a Chinook altered to accommodate the new one in the beginning of next year, according to Dabundo.
Boeing is also teaming up with Canada — which flies a version of the Chinook — to develop more autonomous capability in the aircraft.
While the helicopter already has a very capable Digital Flight Control System which can allow the aircraft to be programmed to fly autonomously, the company plans to take it farther with new sensors that will improve flight in degraded visual environments and allow for terrain and wire-strike avoidance.
The efforts will culminate in a demonstration with Canada in 2021 and 2022.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.