The U.S. Army’s decision to delay upgrading its fleet of CH-47F “Chinook” helicopters was not exactly welcome news at the Boeing Company’s Ridley plant that employs about 4,600 people locally.
The move comes less than two years after the announcement of the major upgrade program that was expected to secure jobs at the Delco facility for decades. Now a dark cloud is hovering over the plant, and job losses are once again feared at the defense giant.
“Delaying CH-47F Block II production funding would have significant detrimental impacts for fleet readiness, the defense industrial base, and taxpayers, and hamper soldiers’ abilities to carry critical payloads,” said Boeing spokesperson Andrew Africk in an emailed statement.
Africk was unable to speak further on the topic until more information comes to light, but others familiar with the program said the impact could be far reaching.
“It’s sent shockwaves throughout the plant,” said United Aerospace Workers Local 1069 President Mike Tolassi. “It’s something we’re working on. We’re trying to persuade the Army how detrimental it would be, laid the groundwork out telling them if they did it now, how much money they would save rather than doing it five years from now.”
Tolassi said delaying those upgrades would require workers to become recertified and retrained when production kicks back in, not to mention expected higher material costs in the future.
In the meantime, he said, businesses in the tri-state area that rely on Boeing employees to spend their money would be hurt, along with vendors who supply parts to the company and taxpayers who will eventually have to pony up more for the same program in the future.
“We’re not just looking at jobs potentially lost at the Boeing plant, we’re looking at the whole supply chain,” said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the non-profit Lexington Institute, who recently examined the ramifications of the Army’s announcement in a piece for Forbes.
“There are about 2,000 workers at the plant who are engaged on the Chinook program,” said Thompson. “The Army made this decision without thinking about the jobs, without thinking about how it would ripple across other programs, and without thinking about how it would impact Boeing’s ability to sell Chinooks to other countries. That’s a lot of stuff to leave out.”
Army Under Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy announced the move during a talk at the Brookings Institution earlier this month, indicating the Army intends to invest more in modernization to keep abreast with Russia and China in areas like air defense and electronic warfare.
“Forthright and ruthless realism underscored these decisions,” McCarthy said. “We will continue to press ahead with organizational reforms and efficiencies, with a savings target of $10 billion over the (fiscal year 2021 through 2025 Future Years Defense Program).”
“Everybody in the Chester/Ridley Park area knows that industry has moved away, but those were private decisions,” said Thompson. “You kind of expect to get a better deal from the federal government. You expect that they’ll give some thought to what the human costs are of cutting a big program.”
The Chinook, a twin-engine, tandem rotor, heavy-lift cargo helicopter, has been a staple workhorse of the U.S. military and its allies for decades. It previously underwent a Block I upgrade that McCarthy indicated makes it “the youngest fleet in the Army” and noted the Army already has 10 percent more Chinooks than it needs.
“We are reaching the limit of what can be added to and improved on platforms that have been the mainstay of the Army for decades,” he said.
The Chinook, which has been built in Ridley Park since the 1960s, has become heavier and bulkier over the years as additional armor was added. The tradeoff came in lowered range and lift ability, which the Block II upgrades were meant to address with advanced rotor blades, redesigned fuel tanks, a sturdier fuselage, and an improved drivetrain.
Expected upgrades to the fleet of 542 aircraft would provide more than 2,000 additional lift-pounds of transport and allow the Chinook to stay in service for decades to come, according to a Boeing fact sheet. Boeing is still under contract to build eight MH-47G Chinooks for special operators, according to military watchdog publication Defense News.
Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, of Zionsville, sent a letter to Army Secretary Dr. Mark Esper earlier this month commending the modernizing endeavors, but noted the Chinook enjoys an “outsized role” in supporting warfighters as the only heavy-lift rotator-craft capable of moving troops and heavy equipment.
Without the upgrades, Toomey worried that Chinooks will not be able to move the Army’s Humvee replacement, the Joint Light Transport Vehicle, and will struggle to lift heavy ordnance like the M777 Howitzer.
Thompson said he looked at the statistics and also has concerns that the Chinook, in its current configuration, “probably can’t safely lift” the heavier JLTV, especially in areas like Southeast Asia or the Middle East, where heat becomes a factor for helicopter operability.
Toomey noted that disrupted production lines and recapitalization requirements could also drive up overall program costs by billions of dollars. Thompson agreed, adding that a wind-down on Chinook production would almost certainly drive up costs for the ones that are still manufactured.
Tolassi said UAW has been working with political allies at the local and federal level to urge the Army to reconsider. State Rep. Dave Delloso, D-162 of Ridley, is among them.
“Cuts and delays to the Chinook Block II funding will hurt the fleet readiness of our country and deal a tremendous blow to the region, costing many thousands of jobs for mechanics and plant staff, local retailers and the vendors and contractors throughout the local supply chain who are all dependent on continued production levels at the Boeing plant,” said Delloso in a statement. “The Chinook is a tried and true heavy-lifting helicopter—the only Army aircraft capable of moving large, heavy equipment in the event of a major conflict—and it is worth saving."
Spokesperson Marlene Richmond said Delloso has reached out to U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-5 of Swarthmore, as well as fellow legislators at the state level. A spokesperson for Scanlon did not return calls for comment Thursday.
“We know that in the past, this has happened before and there’s been a lot of lobbying” to save programs like the V-22 Osprey, said Richmond. “We’re hoping that if we put the pressure on and talk about this, that they will again reverse course.”
The Osprey was at one point all but doomed due to cost overruns, fatal accidents and scandal, but Curt Weldon, the former longtime U.S. Representative for the now defunct 7th Congressional District, is largely credited with saving the program through intense lobbying.
The V-22 later went on to prove itself an essential tool in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Boeing received a $4 billion contract just last year to produce another 58 Ospreys for the U.S. military and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces with its partner, Bell.
Despite rumors swirling last year that the Chinook could be on the budgetary chopping block, the military appeared to be moving forward with upgrades for at least some of the fleet just a few months ago, based on a pre-solicitation notice posted Jan. 10 by Army Contracting Command.
Tolassi said Thursday that he hopes the delay for the Chinook – which he deems “the best aircraft in the world made by the best people in the world” – is not set in stone and that minds can still be changed.
“We’re trying to persuade the military, ‘Let’s not be hasty in this decision,’” he said. “We’re staying positive and let’s see where the chips fall.”