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 March 8 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 March 11 talk at the Brookings Institution.
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 helicopters now being upgraded at Ridley Park and on a separate production line for Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. (See presentation at 17 minutes into Brookings’ video of McCarthy’s talk.)
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.
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.
UAW local president Mike Tolassi was in a plant meeting and unavailable for comment at midday Wednesday, his assistant said.
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