Congress has overridden an Army decision to pause plans to buy new CH-47F Chinook helicopters. At least for 2020.
The CH-47F Block II is the latest and most powerful version of the heavy-lift cargo helicopter in service since early in the Vietnam War. It was intended to carry heavier equipment, such as the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), in mountainous environs, like Afghanistan.
But the military, especially the Army, is leaning away from counterinsurgency and the combating of irregular forces. Current Army acquisition priorities focus on what service leaders believe are the necessities of waging multidomain warfare against near-peer threats, such as China and Russia. And those plans do not include a new — in this case a remanufactured — heavy-lift helicopter.
The Army’s fiscal 2020 budget requested included $18.2 million for the CH-47F Block II upgrade, only enough to complete the build of three engineering and manufacturing development aircraft and nine Special Operations Command MH-47Gs.
The service had planned to upgrade its entire fleet of 542 Chinooks (153 are in the Army National Guard) to the Block II con-figuration, but only the MH-47G Block II variant is included in its spending plans beyond 2020.
Army leaders want to spend dollars intended for CH-47F Block II in the near term on what it calls its “Big Six” priorities, including the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft and the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft. They say systems that may be ideal in counterinsurgency lack the speed and lethality required in a near-peer fight. Even the JLTV program has taken a cut, with the order of the one-time Humvee replacement reduced.
In the case of the CH-47F Block II, the Army says it simply wants to put the decision to move forward on hold until it has a better idea on the development of the FARA and FLRAA. But officials have indicated they may reconsider that decision.
“[JLTVs and Block IIs] were in many ways designed for a different conflict,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper, the former Army secretary, said earlier this year. “Doesn’t mean we won’t use them in future conflicts,” but “we’re in this transition period and some folks are caught in that transition.”
But many defense leaders in Congress, which has the so-called power of the purse, believe there are other factors to consider, such as the manufacturer, Boeing, and its supply chain.
The fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act includes $46.2 million for advanced procurement to buy Block IIs, effectively blocking the Army’s plans for at least one year.
The action is not without precedent. Lawmakers turned down repeated attempts by the Air Force to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt II. And in 2011 the Army wanted to stop buying new tanks for a few years, which would have temporarily closed the tank factory in Lima, Ohio. Congress saw efficiencies in keeping the factory open and was concerned about the high cost of restarting a factory after a few years of dormancy. It added dollars to the Army budget request several years in a row for new tanks to do so.
Often, these large defense programs involve manufacturers — and jobs — across several states and congressional districts. The most recent NDAA requires the Army to report on the strategic risk to the industrial base for the CH-47, including the supplier base, and the current strategy for modernizing the heavy-lift rotorcraft fleet.
Those requirements are fueled by fears that a pause to the Block II program would force several smaller manufacturers of the helicopters’ components to leave the program in search of new revenue streams.
[JTLVs and CH-47 Block IIs] were in many ways designed for a different conflict.
—Defense Secretary Mark Esper
THE GUARD AVIATION COMMUNITY also has heartburn over a pause in CH-47 Chinook program. The Army Guard only recently turned in its last D-model CH-47 Chinook, which would likely put it last in line for the Block II. A delay pushes modernization that much further out, says Col. Gregg Clark, the Pennsylvania Army Guard’s state aviation officer and a Chinook pilot.
Clark is also concerned about how the current fleet of Guard Chinooks is going to mesh with the new aircraft coming out of the Future Vertical Lift Program, which is meant to find replacements for the Army’s current helicopter fleet.
The program has already identified competitors for the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft and a Future Long Range Assault Aircraft. Both the FARA and FLRAA aircraft will be able to penetrate deep into enemy territory, with the FARA able to conduct the initial reconnaissance of the battle space and destroy targets, and the FLRAA able to deliver the first wave of soldiers.
What isn’t being considered is how those initial expeditionary units will be resupplied, Clark says. The current Chinooks won’t be able to fly the same distances as either the FARA or the FLRAA, meaning a heavy-lift capability gap could occur between the new helicopters and the current Chinook models.
The Army’s Future Vertical Lift Program does not currently have a program in place to replace the Chinook, which means a replacement for the helicopter could be decades away, leading some to call the CH-47 a “100-year helicopter.”
To last that long, improvements would likely need to be made to the current CH-47F models to fill the impending capability gap, at least in the short term. Clark says the Army only needs to look at the MH-47G model Chinooks currently being used by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment to find the answers.
The MH-47G can carry more fuel, and if coupled with other improvements such as an upgraded transmission and rotor blades, the CH-47 could go the distance in future conflicts. Until then, Chinook pilots will need to continue to make do with what they’ve got.
Guard CH-47s have performed well overseas and in domestic response missions. Guard component Chinooks have been instrumental in shuttling troops throughout the battlefield, often times in challenging areas of operations like the mountains of Afghanistan or the vast expanses of desert in Iraq.
At home, Chinooks have played vital roles in moving disaster supplies into affected communities in the wake of hurricanes and floods, often time providing the only link to support for stranded civilians. The CH-47 has also helped fight wildfires, through both transporting firefighters to hotspots and conducting aerial water de-liveries to inaccessible terrain. The Guard’s CH-47s are also newer than the component’s fleet of both UH-60s and AH-64s.
However, since the Guard has the newest Chinooks, they will most likely be the last to receive the next generation heavy lift helicopter, when it finally does arrive. This is why many in the Guard community are insisting that the force receive the Block IIs at the same time as active components, especially as Guard units continue to deploy overseas.