NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Boeing hopes Congress will fund more CH-47F Block II Chinook helicopters for the Army in the fiscal 2024 budget — against the service’s wishes — in order to keep the company’s production line busy. But the service’s acquisition chief said in a recent hearing that Germany’s plan to buy the aircraft should be enough to support Boeing and avoid the Army having to buy more.
The Army decided in 2019 that it would not procure the CH-47F Block II for the active fleet so it could begin heavier investments in its Future Long Range Assault Aircraft and the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft it wants to field in the early 2030s. The service is still seeking 69 of the latest Chinook variant for special operations in the form of the MH-47 “G” model.
The Block II version of the Chinook featured new rotor blades, but the Army abandoned the effort a year ago due to excessive rotor blade vibrations that, according to the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester, posed a flight risk. The version also incorporates a new fuel system, electrical system and stronger airframe to increase lift capability.
Since the 2019 decision, Congress has pushed back on the Army’s decision and injected funding into the its budget, forcing the service to buy the Block II variant for the active force. Over the last three budget cycles, Congress has funded a total of 10 Block II Chinooks for the regular Army.
Again in the FY24 request, the Army asked for only six G model helicopters, and none for the active force.
“The Army does recognize the importance of [the CH-47] industrial base and especially the human capital aspect of it. It’s vital,” Army acquisition chief Doug Bush said during a House Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee hearing last week.
“The budget request did include, once again, our six aircraft for special operations forces,” he added. “One thing that has changed is the good news that the German military has decided to buy the CH-47 ... which gives us the opportunity to retain that workforce. Whichever direction the Army ultimately goes, [it] buys us some more time.”
The Army had hoped foreign military sales might help shore up Boeing’s production line to keep the industrial base for the Chinook going strong. Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville argued shortly after the service decided to curb the Block II variant for the regular Army that foreign military sales could bolster the line.
Army officials pointed to both Germany and Israel as potential customers. Israel ultimately chose the Sikorsky-made CH-53K King Stallion for its heavy-lift program in 2021.
Boeing officials told Defense News in 2019 that even if Germany and Israel each went with the CH-47, it wouldn’t be enough to support the production line while also keeping the workforce and sub-tier suppliers active over time.
Boeing’s senior director for international government services, Mark Ballew, told Defense News on April 27 at the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual conference that the sale to Germany is a “huge help,” but it only keeps the production line in Pennsylvania at a minimum sustainment rate.
The company also signed a contract with Egypt to build 12 additional Chinooks, and South Korea has signed a letter of agreement for 18, which will also help fill the gap, according to Ken Eland, Boeing’s Chinook program manager.
Eland said he is hopeful Congress will again fund more Block II Chinooks to the active force in its FY24 budget, which will contribute to the health of the supply chain and the production line.
Boeing and Congress are due for a more definitive answer on the Army’s plan for the active force this year. Bush noted that there is a decision point in 2023, which would feed into the FY25 budget request being built right now, on where it will ultimately land when it comes to providing the latest variant to the active force.
“The aircraft that Congress has added for the Army to procure, we have procured and we are going to field,” Bush said. “But I think at this time, it’s a question of balancing resources across the entire Army. That is the question in front of senior Army leaders with regard to where this falls in the mix.”
But the Army has set its sites on future vertical lift endeavors.
“What I think’s important right now is to get FARA and FLRAA over the hump ... get it fielded and there is a program of record,” McConville told reporters at the AAAA conference on April 27. “Having that transformational capability is where [we] want to go. We’d love to continue building out the CH-47, which really comes down to money.”
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 degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.