Less than two years into a helicopter program that was to keep workers at the Philadelphia area’s biggest industrial complex busy for the next 20 years, the Army says it is canceling its commitment to upgrade hundreds of Chinook 47 helicopters, threatening layoffs for many of the 4,600 mechanics and other staff at Boeing’s Ridley Park, Delaware County assembly plant.
Suppliers and testing centers in the region are also at risk from the cutbacks.
The Army’s new budget request scratches the Chinook upgrade, stops production of Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and reduces planned purchases of Joint Strike Force vehicles, .50-caliber machine guns and forklifts, among other familiar war tools.
Instead, the military plans to spend billions more on new assault helicopters, robotic vehicles, digitally connected weapons, space communications, and short-range missile defense, among other priorities to cope with improved Chinese missiles and Russian missile-defense and cyber-attack, Army undersecretary Ryan McCarthy said in a talk at the Brookings Institution last week.
Although Chinooks were deployed in the Vietnam War more than 50 years ago, the heavy-lifting helicopters are now “the youngest fleet in the Army,” given previous upgrades, McCarthy added. “The Army has over 10 percent more Chinooks than required.”
Work is to continue on Special Forces Chinook helicopters now being upgraded at Ridley Park. UPDATE 3/22: Boeing is also going ahead with plans to move production work on V-22 Osprey military tilt rotor aircraft across Pennsylvania Route 291, to a new 350,000 square-foot factory next to the Chinook assembly line, said Boeing spokeswoman Kelsey Swanson. The $100 million complex “will also house the V-22 ... assembly line.”
Boeing officials still want to save the program. “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,” the company warned in a statement sent in an email from spokesman Andrew Africk.
Defending the plant’s contracts kept former U.S. Reps. Patrick Meehan and Curt Weldon, both Pennsylvania Republicans, riding to the rescue over the last couple of decades to save Chinook upgrades and construction of Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.
“If a major conflict were to break out over the next several years, how would the Army move equipment,” such as the Army’s larger, newer vehicles and artillery, that older helicopters “cannot handle?” U.S. Sen. Patrick Toomey (R., Pa.) asked McCarthy’s boss, Army Secretary Mark Esper, in a March 1 letter, acknowledging the “pressure” the Army feels to cut costs so it can buy newer weapons.
U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D., Pa.) is recruiting the region’s congressional members to appeal to House Appropriations Committee leaders to reconsider, said spokeswoman Gabby Richards.
UPDATE 3/26: Republicans running for Delaware County Council seats against Scanlon’s Democratic allies, after visiting Boeing workers at UAW Local 1069 on Monday, sent the freshman Congresswoman “suggestions for securing continued Congressional funding" for the biggest industrial employer in the region. This “not partisan” advice from Jim Raith, Kelly Colvin, and Mike Morgan includes:
- Bring Democrats and Republicans who represent the area in Congress to the Boeing plant, reminding members of “the regional economic impact” as well as the loss to “military readiness” and “our nation’s industrial defense base" if the Trump budget cuts Chinook 47 upgrades as planned. Follow with “a bi-partisan meeting to develop a regional strategy for protecting the funding."
- Encourage Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J., chair of the House Armed Service Committee’s Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee, to hold a hearing at Boeing’s Ridley facility, where “defense industry scholars and experts" can focus on the cuts’ “long-term negative impact” on “military readiness" and the defense industry.
- Ask U.S. Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., chair of House Appropriations’ Defense subcommittee, to visit Boeing in Ridley so the two can meet with company and union leaders, “since (Visclosky’s) subcommittee will essentially be driving this issue.”
- Prepare her own staff “to monitor and respond in realtime to Trump Administration and Congress proposals” that would hurt the regional economy.
EARLIER: McCarthy said at Brookings that military leaders had reviewed Chinook upgrades and hundreds of other programs before deciding what to cut. “Nothing was sacrosanct,” he said at Brookings. In all, he said, the Army cut or reduced 186 programs, including some at Army headquarters.
The retreat on Chinooks appears to have developed just this winter. “The Army announced in January it was set to award a contract for low-rate initial production of a maximum 14 CH-47 Block II aircraft” in fiscal 2021 and 22, “but no award was made,” Inside Army, a publication that covers military contracting, reported earlier this month.
The Ridley Park plant completes work on about four Chinooks and one to two Ospreys a month, for the United States but also for allied military forces from countries including India, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore.