The Philadelphia-area’s largest factory complex — the Boeing helicopter works in Delaware County — appears to have dodged a fiscal missile this week as area members of Congress of both parties joined forces to pressure Washington into restoring funds for Army Chinook CH-47 helicopter upgrades that had been cut by the Trump administration last winter.
The National Defense Authorization Act “includes an additional $28 million for the CH-47 Block II program,” and gives the Army the option to buy more, according to a 19-page act summary posted to the House of Representatives Rules Committee website.
The act, including restored helicopter money, has survived negotiations to receive the Senate’s prior blessing and the Trump administration’s support, according to U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D.), who represents the plant site in Delaware County and many of its 4,500 salaried and hourly workers. The act was passed by the House on Wednesday.
But the program needs more than authorization. It also needs funding through a pending appropriations bill and additional approvals and funding next year to protect the program long term, Scanlon spokeswoman Gabby Richards noted.
“The act includes some advanced procurement that keeps us on track, but it’s not the final step,” said Andrew Africk, spokesman for Boeing Defense, Space & Security.
The Army’s Chinooks and the Osprey vertical-takeoff aircraft, a favorite of the Navy and Marines, are the main products of the plant, built in the 1960s on the site of the former Baldwin Locomotive Works and its suppliers between the Delaware River and what’s now I-95. Both aircraft are also sold to U.S. allies in smaller numbers.
As recently as last year, Boeing and U.S. Army leaders had said the plant would be busy upgrading Chinooks for decades to come.
But in February, Army Undersecretary Ryan McCarthy, backed by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, said the Defense Department was taking Chinook upgrades out of the Army budget. The agency was also canceling plans for more Bradley Fighting Vehicles, reducing orders for Joint Strike Force vehicles, .50-caliber machine guns, and other familiar U.S. war gear.
According to Army leaders, the Chinook upgrades and other programs cut from the president’s budget were adapted to last-century-style invasions of small Asian countries. They preferred to redirect billions in funding to buy new assault helicopters, robotic vehicles, digital and space fighting systems, cyber and missile defense, and more for future struggles with China or Russia.
The authorization and appropriations bills are where Pentagon projections meet political reality, where members who seek new jobs for their districts or fear the wrath of unemployed voters can defeat military planners’ efforts to refocus some of the $600 billion in yearly military spending.
Not all other canceled programs have been re-funded. Those who joined to pressure leaders of the Armed Service and Appropriations Committees to restore Chinook funding included New Jersey U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D.), who heads the House Armed Services Committee’s Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, and Pennsylvania U.S. Reps. Scanlon, Brian Fitzpatrick (R.), Brendan Boyle (D.), Dwight Evans (D.), Madeleine Dean (D.), Guy Reschenthaler (R.), and Mike Kelly (R.), among others. U.S. Sens. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) and Chris Coons (D., Del.) were among the area senators who pushed for Chinook upgrades in the other chamber.
The Army in 2017 had ordered hundreds of Chinooks fitted with new rotor blades, drive trains, fuel systems, and electronics at the Ridley Park plant. The upgrades, which can take three years, make the Chinooks more powerful so they can handle 12-ton loads, including larger, new U.S. ground vehicles, for the next 50 years.
At the time, Boeing said that upgrade program, plus a new Osprey assembly line, would assure the plant’s future at least until most of the plant’s current workforce is of retirement age. The reversal last winter didn’t stop all Chinook work — a smaller Special Forces upgrade continued, along with contracts for foreign jobs from Saudi Arabia to Singapore.
It’s not just the Ridley Park plant whose future depends on Chinooks. Contractors including Summit Aviation in Middletown, Del., and Ehmke Manufacturing Co., which employs 130 at its fiberglass foam thermal acoustic blanket plant in Juniata Park, also staffed up for Chinook contracts.