UPDATE — This story was updated to reflect the number of EMD Block II Chinooks under contract with the U.S. Army
WASHINGTON — The Army is planning to stop procuring the newest version of the CH-47 F-model Chinook for the conventional force after fiscal year 2020, closing out the program at the end of the engineering and manufacturing development phase.
While details on the plan are not yet available (more budget materials are slated to post March 18), the Army Under Secretary Ryan McCarthy told reporters, in a March 14 interview at the Pentagon, that the service will finish buying EMD versions of the Block II Chinook in FY20 and will only buy G-model Chinooks for Army Special Operations beyond that.
Boeing is currently under contract to build three Block II EMD Chinooks.
The Army decided to cut its production of Chinook Block II aircraft as part of a larger effort to find funding to cover major modernization priorities in the near-term including plans to design and bring online two new, state-of-the-art helicopters — a Long-Range Assault and an Attack Reconnaissance aircraft.
The service is seeking to apply nearly $60 billion over the next five years to fund modernization efforts across six major priorities: Long-Range Precision Fires, Next-Generation Combat Vehicle, Future Vertical Lift, the Network, Air-and-Missile Defense and Soldier Lethality.
FVL is the Army’s third top priority and is ambitious given the service’s track record in procuring new helicopters over the past several decades.
McCarthy said the decision was based around the fact that the Chinook Block I is the youngest in the fleet and is “a very capable asset.” Additionally, “we have 10 percent more than we need,” he said.
While the service plans to cut the Block II program, McCarthy said he did not believe the move would trigger a Nunn-McCurdy breach, which happens when a program experiences a cost growth that exceeds statutory thresholds. Historically, breaches of this nature can be caused by reducing a planned buy of a platform, to the point that production unit cost rises to more expensive levels.
The program ahead of the FY20 budget request laid out a program where Boeing would build 542 Bock II Chinooks — 473 F-models and 69 G-models.
Boeing is currently under contract to build eight MH-47G Chinooks for special operators.
“Delaying the CH-47 Block II production funding would have significant detrimental impacts for fleet readiness, the defense industrial base and tax payers, and hamper soldiers’ abilities to carry critical payloads,” a Boeing statement sent to Defense News March 14 states.
Back in October, Boeing told Defense News it feared the Army might take funding from the Block II Chinook to pay for FVL modernization efforts coming down the pipeline.
Boeing officials argued the Chinook program should move toward a rapid upgrade because there is no cargo-specific helicopter replacement on the horizon in the next 30 years. The company was running analysis to see what the impact might be if the Army decided to slow the procurement of the upgraded helicopters.
For the company, one of the biggest concerns is that the Chinooks haven’t been recapitalized in a long time. Block II was supposed obviate the need for a recap.
Additionally, an Army analysis of alternatives for Block II, ahead for the program a few years ago, found that the Block II upgrade would be cheaper than a recap process while providing more capability than a simple recap.
An F-model Chinook has become heavier and heavier with the addition of aircraft survivability equipment and ballistic protection systems among other upgrades.
The upgrades in the Block II version include newly designed rotorblades, major changes to the drive system and other improvements like non-segmented fuel cells. The aircraft is expected to buy back roughly 4,000 pounds of additional load capacity and adds range capability.
The Army approved the Chinook Block II effort to move into the EMD phase in April 2017 and the program officially began in July 2017.
In October the first two EMD Block II Chinooks were already on the final assembly line. The aircraft are expected to fly in the middle of this year.
The company expects a production decision in July of 2021, which, depending on budget details may be moot aside from special operations G-model orders.
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.