Procurement: Old Reliable Beats Out New And Expensive

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July 10, 2013: The U.S. Army recently signed a $4 billion deal for another 177 CH-47F transport helicopters. These will cost $22.6 million each and there is an option to add 28 more CH-47Fs to the deal. The first of these new helicopters will arrive in two years. This is a rare multi-year contract, which cuts the price about 16 percent. Congress prefers to allow only deals where the politicians can diddle with contracts on an annual basis. But because this drives up costs, there is pressure to go with the cheaper multi-year contracts and the army managed to get one for its huge CH-47F order.

The huge projected cost of developing a new transport helicopter caused the army to decide a decade ago to spend $11.4 billion dollars to refurbish its fleet of existing CH-47 transport helicopters instead. The CH-47 has proved to be a very successful design and none of the proposed replacements was dramatically better than an upgraded CH-47. This upgrade effort will result in a fleet of 513 CH-47F helicopters (including 397 rebuilt CH-47D choppers, 55 new build 47Fs ones, plus some special versions). The CH-47F has been so successful that the army was able to persuade Congress to allow the fleet to be expanded with more new choppers as well.

The rebuilt CH-47Ds became CH-47Fs that are good for another twenty years of service. The F model CH-47 has up-to-date digital communications, is easier to maintain, and cheaper to operate. The CH-47F can carry up to 55 troops and has a maximum range of 426 kilometers. Its max speed is 315 kilometers an hour. Typical missions last no more than 2.5 hours.

Three years ago the CH-47F helicopter got its first sustained experience in a combat zone and performed well. This was a major factor in getting the money to buy more of them. A company of 20 CH-47Fs arrived in Afghanistan during 2009, and soon found themselves often flying eight missions a day, day after day. The CH-47Fs had a 90 percent availability rate. Although the CH-47F has been flying since 2001, and were first delivered to the army in 2009, it takes sustained use in a combat environment to smoke out the last bugs and maintenance problems. In Afghanistan there were some problems with the flat panel displays, but these were quickly worked out. There were several other minor problems, mostly having to do with all the dust in the environment and the temperature extremes (often below freezing in Winter and over 45 degrees/113 Fahrenheit in Summer). This was tough on the maintainers and manufacturers' reps initially, but after a year maintenance problems were no longer an issue. This is important because in Afghanistan the CH-47 is a critical form of air transportation, including combat assault.

Since the 1990s, the U.S. Army had used UH-60 "Blackhawk" helicopters for combat assault missions, while the larger CH-47 "Chinook" was used just for moving cargo. But the army found that, in the high altitudes of Afghanistan, the more powerful CH-47 was often the only way to go in the thin mountain air. While doing that the army found that the CH-47 made an excellent assault helicopter. In many ways it was superior to the UH-60, mainly because the CH-47 carries more troops and moves faster and farther. The CH-47F has even more powerful engines and is even more valuable for high altitude assaults. It is the best helicopter for use in Afghanistan, having proved able to deal with the dust and high altitude operations better than other transport choppers.

The first CH-47s entered service in 1962, able to carry only five tons. Some 750 saw service in Vietnam and 200 were lost in action. During 1982-94, 500 CH-47s were rebuilt to the CH-47D standard. SOCOM operates 31 MH-47Ds and Es, which have additional navigation gear. These are being upgraded to MH-47F standards and the fleet expanded to 61 helicopters. As a result of all this, the CH-47 will end up serving at least 75 years. The original CH-47F upgrade program and new builds will not be completed until 2018. The new contract will extend production into the 2020s.

 

 


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