With drones changing warfare, US Army revives '20-year' Chinook project

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

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

The Army cited “lessons learned and sober assessment” from recent battlefields in Ukraine and elsewhere, where “agile” drones have been used to combat conventional forces from afar 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 transported armor and other heavy equipment to 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 the closure 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 advocate for the Chinook program.

Last Friday, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., praised the military’s rollback, noting that it “supported thousands of good-paying jobs in our region as well as our national security.”

James Rugh, leader of UAW Local 1069, which represents the plant’s assembly workers, praised Casey and Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon for helping to “secure the future” of the workers.

The Army will replace canceled scout helicopters with next-generation drones and space-based systems while phasing out older Shadow and Raven unmanned craft.

“Sensors and weapons mounted on various unmanned and space-based systems” have “longer range and are cheaper than ever,” 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 that they could suspend production of the Chinook if Congress did not guarantee long-term orders.

The plant also assembles Osprey tilt rotors, which officials warned could also suffer a slowdown due to a lack of orders.

On Friday, Jolivette called the decision to buy more Chinooks “a reflection of [the Army’s] confidence in our heavy transportation program,” which transports tanks and other heavy equipment to war zones. He also thanked members of Congress for pushing the program forward.

Philadelphia-area helicopter manufacturers, such as 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-powered models.

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

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

Joseph N. DiStefano