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With drones changing war, Army revives a ‘20-year’ Chinook project at Boeing’s PA plant

U.S. Air Force CH-47 Chinook helicopter is seen standing on the tarmac at the airport in Jasionka, near Rzeszow, Poland, on Feb. 16, 2022. (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

In a move that elected officials say could keep the assembly line at the Boeing plant in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania, busy for 20 years, the U.S. Army has canceled a proposed attack helicopter by rivals Lockheed Sikorsky and Bell Textron and transferred funds to upgrade Boeing’s Chinook helicopters and smarter drones.

The Army said Thursday that it is discontinuing work on the Future Attack and Reconnaissance Aircraft — often called scout helicopters — and shifting funds to speed a long-delayed upgrade of up to 425 Boeing Chinook CH-47s. It also will begin building new attack helicopters by 2030, along with next-generation unmanned aircraft.

The Army cited “lessons learned and a sober assessment” of recent battlefields in Ukraine and elsewhere, where “agile” drone aircraft have been used to combat conventional forces from far away at low cost.

The move reverses a Pentagon decision in 2019 that slowed planned Chinook upgrades. At the time, military leaders said they expected to need fewer Chinooks, which haul tanks and other heavy equipment into battle zones, or other equipment used in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Instead, the focus would be on long-range artillery, space and software weapons, and other programs useful against Russia or China.

That decision threatened a shutdown of the Chinook assembly line at the 4,000-worker plant, and its suppliers in the region. In response, the region’s congressional delegation crossed party lines to plead for the Chinook program.

On Friday, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania, praised the Army’s reversal, noting it “supported thousands of good-paying jobs in our region, as well as our national security.”

James Rugh, a leader of UAW Local 1069, which represents assembly workers at the plant, credited Casey and U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pennsylvania, for helping “secure the future” for workers.

The Army will replace the canceled scout helicopters with new-generation drone aircraft and space-based systems, while phasing out older Shadow and Raven unmanned craft, the Army said in a statement.

“Sensors and weapons mounted on a variety of unmanned systems and in space” are “further reaching and more inexpensive than ever before,” Gen. Randy George, Army chief of staff, said in a statement.

Last year, Boeing leaders, including vice president Kathleen “KJ” Jolivette, general manager of the company’s helicopter program, had warned it could suspend production of the Chinook if long-term orders weren’t guaranteed by Congress.

The plant also assembles Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, which officials warned could also face a slowdown due to a lack of orders.

On Friday, Jolivette called the decision to buy more Chinooks “a reflection of [Army] confidence in our heavy-lift program,” which hauls tanks and other heavy equipment to war zones. She also thanked members of Congress for pushing for the program.

Philadelphia-area helicopter makers including Boeing, Piasecki in Essington and Coatesville, and Leonardo in Northeast Philadelphia, have sought Pentagon funding for unmanned aircraft as well as electric, hybrid, and hydrogen-fueled models.

Leonardo and Boeing have said they are also developing ways to deploy drone forces from manned helicopters.

Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth in a statement called these changes part of the Army’s “most significant modernization effort” since at least the early 1980s.


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