U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) has sent a letter to Army Secretary Mark Esper concerning the possible delay in the Block II upgrade of the Army's CH047F Chinook helicopter fleet, which is manufactured at Boeing's Ridley Park plant.
Toomey was concerned that the Army will choose to delay the upgrade, which could put approximately 2,000 jobs at risk at the plant.
Toomey wrote that although he respected the Army's decision and judgment regarding funding priorities and other decisions, the Chinook was the only Army heavy-lift rotorcraft that can move troops and equipment.
"Indeed, Army leaders have previously emphasized the importance of the Block II upgrade to ensure the preservation of this payload and lift capacity in the coming decades," Toomey wrote. "Postponing the Block II upgrade, which appears to be ahead of schedule and under budget, would raise significant questions regarding possible impacts on the warfighter as well as the Block II's longer-term budgetary costs.
Toomey noted that without the Block II upgrade, the Chinook would not be able to lift the Joint Light Transport Vehicle, which is the Humvee replacement. He is also concerned that without the upgrade, the Chinook would struggle to lift the Army's M777 howitzer along with projectiles and crew members.
Toomey also touched on reports that the delay would increase costs by billions of dollars.
He asked for written responses to three questions regarding how the Army will proceed with the upgrade, how the delay would affect the Chinook and how a delay could affect the costs to the overall program. He also asked how the Army planned to move equipment that a non-upgraded Chinook wasn't equipped to handle in light of a major conflict arising and how the Army planned to mitigate against impacts on the helicopter.
Forbes contributor Loren Thompson wrote last month that the Chinook upgrades could be delayed five years. He noted that money earmarked for the upgrades was used, instead, to address other issues as the Army planned to delay improvements to the helicopters.
"I won’t claim to understand the operational rationale underpinning the planned delay, but I have a pretty firm grasp of what a five-year gap in planned production would mean for workers, for foreign military sales and for other Pentagon programs," Thompson wrote. "It isn’t so clear that Army planners understand these impacts, or even care. But the political system will."
Chinooks are assembled in Ridley Park, and of its 4,200 employees, about half work on the helicopters. Thompson believes that although production would not completely cease, it would slow to a crawl, which would raise prices.
Thompson also noted in the Forbes story that Pennsylvania is essential if President Trump wants to be re-elected and that lost jobs would not bode well for the president.
Block I upgrades will wind down in 2023, which is when Block II is set to begin.
The Block II upgrade was supposed to address problems with new rotor blades, a new fuel system and improvements to the helicopter’s drivetrain and airframe, according to The Weekly Standard, making it so that the upgraded helicopters could carry a larger loan farther and more safely than it can currently.