Time Is Running Out for the Army to Save the Chinook Program

Army CH-47 Chinook departs from Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan
A U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook departs from Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, Dec. 27, 2009. (Francisco V. Govea II/U.S. Air Force)

Retired Lt. Col. Thomas Edward Lasser spent seven years on active duty with the U.S. Army and another 33 years with the California National Guard, including 30 years on full-time status with the California Military Department. A Vietnam veteran, he is a master Army aviator with more than 6,000 flying hours, including over 1,000 helicopter missions in Vietnam and almost 1,800 combat flying hours.

Clear, concise decision-making. That's what American citizens -- and U.S. allies -- expect from our government leaders. Unfortunately, that isn't what we're getting, specifically regarding defense programs and the future of global military engagement.

The U.S. Army has a long record of success and a reputation for getting things done. However, it is standing still on the crucial CH-47 Chinook helicopter program at a moment when it's imperative to move forward. This program brings a lot to the table regarding quality, capability and economic opportunity. It's necessary for U.S., allied military operations, civilian missions and America's manufacturing sector. If the Army continues to hedge, the Chinook program will shut its doors, leaving our military and manufacturers empty-handed.

Since the 1960s, American soldiers have relied on the Chinook. I flew the helicopter during the Vietnam War and in the California National Guard; since then, it has only improved. The newest model -- the Chinook Block II -- increased the payload to more than 1,700 pounds. It has greater agility and avionics, and can fly higher and farther in extreme weather. It's also the only Army aircraft that can transport a Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, or JLTV, and the M777ER Howitzer.

The Chinook program has a reliable supply chain that employs tens of thousands of Americans, supports hundreds of businesses, and pumps millions of dollars into the economy. It also is an essential tool for National Guard and civilian missions, including natural disasters, firefighting, humanitarian aid and search-and-rescue operations. The Chinook is so capable and dependable that U.S. Special Forces are already slated to receive the upgraded Block II model for our nation's most challenging military missions. Unfortunately, the number of Block II Chinooks destined for America's most elite fighters is not enough to keep the program going.

Weighing cost versus benefits is essential, especially when millions of dollars are involved. I don't fault the Army for its careful consideration, but the Chinook program has proven its worth. It's time for the service to commit. Army leadership generically supports the Chinook, yet asks Congress to divert funding allocated for the program to other priorities. These mixed messages are hurting military efforts, discouraging our foreign allies, leaving workers out to dry, and pulling a fast one on taxpayers. These actions do not align with the Army I served in for most of my life.

Importantly, the service has invested a substantial amount of taxpayer dollars into the research, development and operation of JLTVs and Howitzers. If neither can be transported to where they need to be, they're useless. Without clear buy-in from the Army, our allies overseas won't invest in the Chinook program either. That means the capabilities America would lose without the Chinook will also impact allied operations. This could complicate existing overseas missions.

The uncertain future of the Chinook program leaves supplier companies wondering whether they'll be able to keep their doors open and their workers employed. It's also concerning that the Army has no alternative rotorcraft to replace the Chinook should its production line be shut down.

This situation doesn't make much sense, and the Army hasn't shown much desire to clear it up. The longer this continues, the worse it will be for national defense and an important segment of American manufacturing. I was inspired to join the Army out of patriotism, respect for the institution, and my belief in the service's leadership. My desire is to have leadership listen to the field and sustain this capability for us and our international partners.

The Army has to live up to its commitments and have straightforward conversations about its intentions for the Chinook program. It has been a steadfast, cost-effective, and successful platform for the service, and the upgraded Block II model will only improve the program's impeccable track record.

The Army needs to move forward with the upgraded Block II across the service, not just Special Forces. If the service wants to remain a world leader, it requires a world-class helicopter. There is no replacement for the CH-47.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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