U.S. Army still doesn’t want to upgrade conventional forces F-model Chinooks

For the second year in a row, the U.S. Army is advertising its desire not to upgrade its CH-47F Chinooks to Block II configuration by eliminating funding for the program from its annual budget request.

The Army first tried to discontinue the planned upgrades for more than 400 CH-47Fs in the active force in its budget plan for fiscal 2020. Congress restored some advanced procurement funding, which kept program hopes alive but is nowhere near the amount needed to ensure future work for Boeing’s Philadelphia Chinook factory.

Boeing Chinook helicopter
Block II Chinooks feature technological advancements to extend the fleet’s service life and enhance performance. Boeing Photo
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Released Feb. 10, the Army’s budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year 2021 contains funding for continued research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) of the Block II upgrade package.

Plans are to upgrade 73 MH-47G Chinooks for U.S. Special Operations Command. The spending plan, however, does not restore funding for upgrading 465 conventional force F-model Chinooks to Block II configuration.

“We will continue with the Block II RDT&E and development of that for our Special Operations Forces but we will maintain approximately seven aircraft a year in CH-47s for the conventional forces,” Army Budget Director Maj. Gen. Paul Chamberlain, said during a Feb. 10 press conference at the Pentagon. “We are not going back on the plans from last year. We are sticking to the development of the Block II aircraft, absolutely, for the special operations forces.”

Block II introduces a lighter, more structurally rigid airframe, a beefed-up drivetrain and Boeing’s advanced composite rotor blades (ACRBs) designed to provide a 1,500-pound (680-kilogram) increase in lift. Chamberlain mentioned that the Army does plan to continue upgrading its Chinooks to F-model configuration at the rate of seven per year.

Boeing is on contract to build 15 MH-47Gs for SOCOM, the first two of which are on the production line in Philadelphia. Both are scheduled for delivery in 2020.

The U.S. Defense Department’s approved budget for fiscal year 2020 restored $25 million in preliminary funds for the Block II upgrade program that the Army wanted to cut from its spending plans. The Army argues it can perform the heavy-lift mission with the current CH-47F until a next-generation replacement comes online beyond the 2030s, stoking concerns that Boeing’s Philadelphia production line could wither without new work.

Nothing in the Army’s budget is set in stone until approved by Congress. That OK will come only after several committees have weighed and fiddled with the plan, which means lawmakers could always restore funding and force the Army to upgrade its Chinooks.

Boeing says it will take its case to Washington, highlighting the importance of Block II upgrades to the Chinook supply base and U.S. troops.

“The President’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget proposal calls for funding that would strengthen the U.S. military and protect our nation, including investments in a number of Boeing products and services,” a Boeing spokesperson told Vertical in an emailed statement. “The proposal would advance the capabilities of the Armed Forces, support the industrial base, preserve national security through critical space programs and help restore military readiness through procurement and sustainment of aircraft, rotorcraft, and weapons — among other platforms.”

“We look forward to working together with the Administration and Congress to highlight additional priorities for 2021, including the need to adequately fund P-8 and CH-47F Chinook Block II procurement in support of the warfighter at home and around the globe,” Boeing added. “As the budget process moves forward, Boeing remains committed to delivering the quality products our military and government partners deserve at the best possible value for American taxpayers.”

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At $21.7 billion, the Army’s procurement budget is relatively flat from the current fiscal year. Of that total, $3.1 billion is for aircraft, down from $3.8 billion in the current fiscal year.

Including Overseas Contingency Funding, called OCO and basically war funding that is exempt from budget cuts, the request asks for $3.5 billion in aviation procurement, including the intent to buy 36 UH-60M Black Hawk utility helicopters for a total of $830 million in FY21, as well as 52 AH-64E Apache attack helicopters for a total $1.2 billion — up from 49 ($1.1 billion) in the current fiscal year.

In an effort to insulate and protect its modernization priorities, the Army canceled scores of programs deemed less important to its future mission and “realigned” $3 billion this year toward programs at the top of the heap like Future Vertical Lift (FVL).

FVL, specifically the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft, received a sizable chunk of research funding. The Army has set aside $514 million to continue development of “a lightweight attack/reconnaissance aircraft while significantly increasing speed, range, survivability, and lethality.” That funding will complete the final design phase, from which “two industry solutions will be chosen for design, build, and testing of competitive prototypes in preparation for rapid acquisition and fielding.”

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