WASHINGTON — Congressional appropriators and authorizers have increased advance procurement funds for the newest variant of the CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter as preparation to supply the aircraft to the Army’s active force, even though the service asked to only buy a small number of the helos in fiscal 2020 for special operations.
The service’s decision to cut the aircraft from the active force was based on the need to free up future cash to cover the cost of an ambitious plan to buy two new future vertical lift aircraft for long-range assault and attack reconnaissance missions.
But Congress has gone against the Army’s wishes to divert funding away from procurement for the active force, instead adding $28 million in FY20 funding — in both the recently released spending and policy bill conference reports — for advance procurement to begin to prime the pump to restore CH-47F Block II deliveries to the conventional Army.
The cut the service made would only buy 69 special operations variants — or "G" models. The original plan was to procure 473 "F"-model Block II helicopters for the active force.
The Army approved the Block II effort to move into the engineering and manufacturing development phase in April 2017, and the program officially began in July 2017. In October 2018, the first two EMD Block II Chinooks were already on the assembly line with plans to fly in mid-2019. Boeing, which manufactures the aircraft, expects a production decision in July 2021.
While $28 million won’t get the service much, based on the original plan the Army would start building five CH-47F Block IIs in 2021 meant for the active force. The advance procurement in FY20 would support buying longer-lead items from suppliers, but is still a stretch to claim that the additional funding restores the program.
Those five aircraft would be delivered in 2023 based on Boeing’s typical three-year lead time to build an airframe.
It remains to be seen whether the congressional plus-up will prompt the Army to restore funding for the five CH-47F Block IIs in its FY21 budget request due out early next year.
It’s also unclear how many of those long-lead parts procured in FY20 could be used in G-model aircraft or are exclusive to F-models. Therefore, it’s also murky how much of the $28 million in parts might be wasted if the Army sticks to its plan to only procure G-model aircraft.
The Army has indicated it might reconsider the CH-47F Block II cut; the FY21 budget request, when it is released, will likely reveal the Army’s decision.
Shortly after the service’s plan to cut the CH-47F Block II was revealed in its FY20 budget request, then-Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, who is now chief, told reporters the Army was comfortable with its decision, but 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 the decision.”
McConville was referring to the Army’s plan to buy two future vertical lift aircraft.
The same day, then-Army Secretary Mark Esper, who is now defense secretary, told another group of reporters that the service would not be rethinking its plans to build CH-47 Block IIs for the conventional force.
The Army has also claimed it is pursuing foreign military sales of its CH-47F Chinooks to soften the blow from cuts made to its intended buy of the Block II variant, but none of the possible sales — to the United Kingdom or to the United Arab Emirates — were newly in the works at the time. And neither country has plans to buy Block II variants. Moreover, the number of helicopters the two countries plan to procure amount to less than 30 aircraft.
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.