The U.S. House is slated to vote today on the National Defense Authorization Act, and not a moment too soon for Boeing employees at the Ridley plant overseeing production of the CH-47 “Chinook” helicopter.
“Like the residents of my district who proudly build these machines, the Chinook is a workhorse that can always be relied upon to get the job done – even in the toughest and most unforgiving of conditions,” said U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-5 of Swarthmore, in support of the bill during floor debate earlier this week. “This bill makes it clear that Congress has no intention of abandoning this critical program.”
The future of the Chinook upgrading program came into question earlier this year when Army Under-Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy announced a decision to delay Block II upgrades that would improve the copter’s range and lift ability in favor of pursuing modernization efforts to keep abreast with Russia and China in areas like air defense and electronic warfare.
United Aerospace Workers Local 1069 President Mike Tolassi said in March that the news sent shock waves through the Ridley plant, which employs approximately 4,600 people locally. Scanlon noted in her comments that the Chinook program supports more than 20,000 jobs all told and more than 200 suppliers in 38 states.
Since McCarthy’s announcement, Scanlon and other legislators have been pushing the Army to reconsider. The congresswoman sent letters out to the House Armed Services and Defense Appropriations committees indicating delaying production of the Block II upgrades by five years would reduce production by 67 percent, result in the loss of more than 1,000 skilled jobs and drive costs up $3.2 billion.
In his own letter to Army Secretary Dr. Mark Esper, Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey of Zionsville noted the Chinook enjoys an “outsized role” in supporting warfighters as the only heavy-lift rotor-craft capable of moving troops and heavy equipment, and asked for justification in the costs associated with a delay.
The pressure appears to have worked. The House Appropriations Defense subcommittee directed the Army to restore funding for the program in future budget requests and the House Armed Services Committee sought an additional $28 million to keep the Chinook Block II program operational for the next five years.
Tolassi said the plant has seen a surge in visits from local and federal elected officials in the past few months as well, all voicing support to restore the program.
“My folks are still doing what they do best, building the best aircraft in the world and our morale is pretty good,” he said. “We see what everybody in Congress is doing for us, how they’re pushing. Every politician on every level – congressional, state, federal, local, on every level – is in full support of continuing this Block II program as it was signed by the Army and as it was promised by the Army.”
Tolassi said he is not too familiar with Lockheed’s Sikorsky plant in Chester County, which avoided closure this week when parent company Lockheed Martin reverse course on a plan to close the facility, reportedly at the request of President Donald Trump, though he hopes that signals that the president will continue to support businesses that contribute to the nation’s defense.
“Back when Trump got elected, that was his stance and that was his position – increase and keep on spending for defense,” said Tolassi. “I know my folks in the plant, they’re looking at that. Hopefully, he keeps to his word and continues to keep all these defense programs alive. That’s what we’re counting on.”
The next hurdle comes with actually getting the NDAA passed in the House, however, where a progressive caucus of Democrats – many still smarting from a defeat last month on a border aid bill – has shown anything but a unified front.
On top of that, Trump himself has threatened to veto the $733 billion bill – $17 billion less than the White House requested – if it contains provisions to clean up a class of chemicals called PFAS. The U.S. Senate has already passed its own version of the NDAA with similar PFAS provisions.
If the NDAA does pass in the House today, it will also still need to go to conference and both chambers will need to pass identical versions of the same bill before it gets to the president’s desk.
Tomalli is hoping that whatever happens, the upgrade program is able to continue without delay – not just for Boeing employees, but for everyone touched by the Chinook.
“The men and women who bravely serve in our armed forces are top priority,” he said. “We want them to continue to have the best equipment available for them. And of course, secondary, it would be devastating to the tri-state area (if it is delayed). Not only with folks at Boeing, but with suppliers, vendors and small businesses that rely on Boeing employees. And for the taxpayers. It would be a huge blow to everybody.”