The House Armed Services Committee complained that the military’s Future Years Defense Program doesn’t fund upgrades for Chinook CH-47F helicopters at Boeing Corp.'s Ridley Township factory, as the previous year’s budget did. So it is asking for an extra $28 million to keep the “Block II” upgrade program active during the next five years, adding that there is a “strategic risk to the industrial base” if the Army doesn’t keep updating Chinooks and then needs to at a later date.
The committee also directed Army Secretary Marc T. Esper to produce a cost-benefit analysis of the impact of delaying the Chinook upgrades and having to reassemble the workforce and suppliers in future years, if the recent upgrade campaign is cut back as in the Pentagon’s current budget, according to the statement obtained by The Inquirer.
The Democratic-led committee wants the Army to preserve more of its helicopter-dependent “anti-insurgent” capabilities that have supported U.S. wars in Asia from Korea to Afghanistan, diluting the Army’s new focus on digital, long-range, and space-based weapons.
The move, if endorsed by the Senate and adopted in next year’s budget, would help protect 4,600 union and professional jobs at Boeing’s facility — the largest of a constellation of helicopter assembly, supply, and testing facilities in the Philadelphia area.
But those efforts face strong resistance from military leaders who want the Army to move away from older technologies like the Chinook to meet new long-term war threats from China and Russia.
The Army’s proposed budget earlier this year cuts nearly $1 billion from the Chinook upgrade budget over the years, threatening nearly half the jobs at Ridley.
Last week, Lockheed Martin said it plans to close its nonunion Sikorsky civilian helicopter factory next to the Coatesville Airport. The move will idle the last 400 workers in a plant that has suffered layoffs since State Sen. Andy Dinniman (D., Chester) secured a $2.5 million grant for improvements five years ago.
Chester County’s freshman U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D., Pa.) said in a statement that she “is very troubled by Sikorsky’s decision to close the Coatesville plant. The community is proud of the work it’s done to support the VH-92 program – this workforce builds a safe, reliable helicopter for our commander-in-chief.”
Italy-based Leonardo has a 600-worker helicopter plant next to Northeast Philadelphia Airport that has mostly serviced oil exploration, police, and other civilian demand. But the parent company is a military supplier in Europe and recently won an Air Force contract to provide a military version of one of its civilian helicopters in partnership with Boeing.
Leonardo plans to expand the Philadelphia factory and has been hiring engineers from Sikorsky, among others.
At Ridley, Boeing is upgrading Chinooks to carry larger loads. The company also builds and upgrades Chinooks for U.S. Special Forces and allies around the world. And it builds Osprey military aircraft.
Aides to U.S. Sens. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) and Bob Casey (D., Pa.) and the mostly Democratic area House delegation have trooped to the plant in recent months to get their pictures taken with Army officers, Boeing officials, and members of the Machinists union. Their main goal has been to strategize ways to keep the plant busy.
“The Army has not given us a plan for the future of heavy-lift helicopters," said U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J, chair of the Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee, who visited Boeing last month with U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pa and Dr. Bruce Jette, Assistant Secretary of the Army. Worried about the future of the workforce and the difficulty of re-assembling workers years after potential layoffs, the subcomitteee voted the additional $28 million to keep the plant running, he said in a statement.
“Chinooks were an important part of our military when I served in the Air Force back in the early 1990s, and they remain so today," Rep. Houlahan said in a statement. She said she is advocating for Boeing workers and suppliers in her Chester County district "who do the important work of ensuring our soldiers have the heavy-lift helicopter capacity they need when deploying.”
Houlahan also quizzed Army Secretary Mark T. Esper and Chief of Staff Mark Milley and other senior soldiers about the Chinooks at a national defense budget hearing April 2. She asked about what she called the abrupt decision to end Army Chinook upgrades, which the Army had confirmed as a priority as recently as 2017.
“What changed?” Houlahan asked, noting that the Army has also cut back on Bradley Fighting Vehicle and Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle improvements. She said the changes had “caused a lot of consternation in the Pennsylvania supply chain,” where smaller companies provide insulation, testing, and other products andservices for Boeing helicopters.
Esper cited “clear guidance” from former Defense Secretary James Mattes and Pentagon planners for the Army’s shift from "years of counterinsurgency warfare to high-intensity conflict” and the big “pivot toward being able to fight and win against near-peer competitors” such as Russia and China.
Esper said it would put U.S. troops “at very serious risk” to pour more billions into old programs, such as the Chinook, if it means delaying a rapid shift to modern fighting technologies to meet and beat Chinese and Russian advances.