Congress rescues Chinook Block II from Army, again

Avatar for Dan ParsonsBy Dan Parsons | December 9, 2020

Estimated reading time 5 minutes, 12 seconds.

Congress has again saved Boeing’s Chinook Block II program from U.S. Army plans to cancel upgrading its CH-47F fleet with the performance-boosting retrofit package. 

The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes $296.7 million for CH-47 helicopters, an increase of $136 million from what the Army requested, all of which is for F-model Chinooks upgraded to Block II configuration. The Army requested six CH-47F helicopters, but will get 11, five of which are Block II F models.

Chinook Block II flight test
Three engineering and manufacturing development CH-47F Block II aircraft have been in flight test at Boeing’s Mesa, Arizona, facility. Boeing Photo

Also included in the Defense Department funding bill is $47.3 million for advanced procurement, an increase of $29 million over the Army’s request. Again, the increase is specifically for Block II upgrades. 

The NDAA sailed through the House of Representatives and should be voted on by the Senate this week. President Trump has threatened to veto the bill over a provision exempting social media companies from liability for user posts, but support in Congress is sufficient to override an executive shoot-down.

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.

Army aviation officials plan to keep F-model Chinooks flying until at least 2040, by which time they expect to be well on their way to replacing the heavy-lift helicopter with a Future Vertical Lift (FVL) platform. In cutting funding for Block II upgrades to the CH-47F helicopters flown by conventional aviation units — Special Operations MH-47Gs will get the upgrades — the Army has argued the CH-47F’s capabilities will remain relevant and fill its heavy-lift requirements until a so-called FVL Capability Set 5 comes online.

The Army first tried to discontinue 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.

Funding for upgrading the Army’s 400-plus CH-47Fs was again absent from the Army’s $3.1 billion aircraft procurement budget request for fiscal 2021, which begins Oct.1.

Boeing has kept its head down and moved forward with developmental testing of three experimental Block II aircraft. It also has begun delivering MH-47G Block II aircraft to Army Special Operations Command.

In the 2021 NDAA, lawmakers said they “recognize the critical importance of ensuring robust, modern, medium-heavy-lift helicopter capability within the Army.” 

“The conferees note the Department’s decision to delay pursuing the CH-47F Chinook Block II upgrade and are concerned about the impact this decision will have on warfighting capability, operational readiness, and the medium-heavy-lift helicopter industrial base,” the NDAA states. 

Congress has directed the Secretary of the Army to produce a report on Army plans for medium-heavy-lift helicopters and deliver it to the defense committees of both houses within three months of the NDAA’s passage. That assessment should include: an analysis of the projected long-term readiness and operational availability of the CH-47F aircraft in view of the decision to delay the Block II upgrade; an evaluation of the Army’s plans, to include the timeline, for Future Vertical Lift Capability Set 5 to sustain medium-heavy-lift capacity within the Army; and a review of the medium-heavy-lift helicopter industrial base to meet current and projected needs.

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