St. Petersburg Times (Florida) February 24, 2004
Army scraps troubled copter plan
SOURCE: Washington Post
The Army Monday canceled development of the $38-billion Comanche helicopter program after 21 years of escalating costs, technological glitches and redesigns failed to produce a single operational aircraft.
The Comanche, once billed as a cornerstone of the military's high-tech transformation, had consumed $6.9-billion. The estimated cost of each aircraft had soared to $58.9-million from an original target of $12-million.
"It's had a long and troubled history," said Marcus Corbin, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information.
The Comanche, a strongly armed reconnaissance helicopter, was designed for operations against huge Soviet and Warsaw Pact armies and has been overtaken by the Army's need for lighter and more flexible aircraft to fight against terrorists and guerrillas.
Acknowledging that the Comanche no longer fit into the requirements of the battlefield, the Army said it would rather spend the money on an overhaul of its aviation system. If approved by Congress, the funds would be directed instead to buy 796 additional Black Hawk, Apache and other helicopters and to upgrade and modernize 1,400 helicopters already in the fleet. Unmanned drones also would be a priority.
"It's about fixing Army aviation," said Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff. "It's a big decision. We know it's a big decision, but it's the right decision."
The program's demise - one of the largest program cancellations in Pentagon history - marks the second time in less than two years that a major Army weapons system has been eliminated. In 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld canceled the mobile Crusader artillery system, which was seen as an $11-billion Cold War relic.
The Crusader's cancellation came over the objections of the Army's leaders. But the Army's leadership initiated the cutback of the Comanche after a six-month study that assessed the Army's aviation capabilities.
The end of the Comanche also reflects an acknowledgement by the Pentagon that it simply cannot afford all the programs it wants. The move underscores the fact that the Pentagon must begin economizing as the federal budget deficit widens and demands on military spending grow, industry analysts said.
The Army would have spent $14-billion on the Comanche program through 2011 without getting aircraft significantly more capable than the upgraded Apaches it already plans to buy, Army officials said.
The Comanche was envisioned as a flying data center and gunship capable of receiving battlefield information and attacking enemy targets itself or calling in reinforcements. Many of the Comanche's tasks can now be performed by unmanned aerial vehicles.
"It took so long to get into production it was simply overtaken by new threats and new capabilities," said Loren B. Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute. "There are other ways of doing those jobs, and those ways have stronger support."
Lawmakers representing Connecticut, where the Comanche was being built, reacted angrily to the cancellation.
"I am outraged by the Army's decision to terminate the Comanche program given that the Army has long argued that it is a critical weapons system that plays a pivotal role in our military's transformation," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn. "What has changed? And how does the Army plan to make up for the Comanche's lost capabilities?"
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the decision "reflects the difficulty that the services are facing with the cost of modernization requirements now coming to the fore."
It would have cost several billion dollars to make the Comanche operate effectively in current battlefield environments, Army officials said.
Last year, the Army cut the number of Comanche helicopters it planned to order from 1,213 to 650. The initial plan called for 2,096 aircraft.
The cancellation was a blow to the Comanche's prime contractors, Boeing Co. and Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., a unit of United Technologies Inc.
The cancellation also raised concerns on Wall Street that the robust defense spending of recent years could slow. Boeing's stock fell by 1.6 percent or 72 cents a share to $43.62. United Technologies shares fell by 2.9 percent or $2.82 to $93.80.
A senior Army official said the Pentagon expects to have to pay a $450-million to $680-million termination fee to Boeing and Sikorsky.
The program's elimination, however, could benefit the two companies. The Army now plans to pour more money into the Apache, which is manufactured by Boeing, and step up the purchase of Black Hawk helicopters, made by Sikorsky.
Since production was not scheduled to begin until 2009, the immediate number of jobs affected is around 700 in Connecticut and about 600 in Philadelphia, along with around 1,000 more scattered around the country.
- Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.
The RAH-66 Comanche helicopter
The first helicopter specifically designed for armed reconnaissance in air calvary and light division attack battalions. In heavy division attack battalions it would supplement the Apache helicopter.
Manufacturer: Joint venture between Boeing and Sikorsky Aircraft
Length: 47 feet
Width: 39 feet (rotor turning)
Height: 11 feet
Engines: two gas turbine engines, five-blade rotor
Speed: 205 mph
Five-blade rotor creates 50% the noise of current helicopters
Shrouded tail rotor eliminates air-wakes with main rotor
Radiates 25% of engine heat of current helicopters. Engine exhaust is mixed with cooling air and discharged through side-slots, making it invisible to heat-seeking missiles.
Military projects past, future
What has been cut
The Comanche, canceled Monday, is a twin-engine, two-pilot helicopter with stealth technology designed to make it more difficult to track and target by enemy radar. The project was launched in 1983 and was eventually to have cost $38-billion. The program met with many setbacks and was restructured six times, most recently in 2002. The latest timetable had specified beginning initial low-rate production in 2007, with the first Comanches to have been declared ready for combat in 2009 with full-rate production to have begun in 2010. Five Comanche helicopters are in production. It is unclear what will happen to them.
The first major weapon program that Donald Rumsfeld dropped was the $11-billion Crusader artillery project in 2002 after $2-billion had been spent. The system, a mobile, armored 155mm cannon and its resupply vehicle, can fire up to eight rounds per minute at different trajectories so that they arrive on their target within four seconds of each other. It also can move quickly to evade an enemy's return fire. The Army fiercely fought to keep it. Critics called it a Cold War relic.
Other projects under scrutiny
The Bush administration often has talked of canceling the $26-billion tilt-rotor Marine Corps aircraft that takes off and lands like a helicopter and flies like a plane. Ospreys were grounded in December 2000 after two accidents that year killed 23 Marines.
Questions also have been raised about this $42-billion Air Force fighter jet, which would replace the aging F-15. It combines stealth design with the supersonic, highly maneuverable, long-range requirements of an air-to-air fighter.
Where the money will go
Part of the money meant for the Comanche likely will go to buy 796 additional Black Hawks, the Army's primary utility/assault helicopter. The Apache combat helicopter also will be updated.
The Army will invest more heavily in a variety of unmanned aircraft, such as the existing Hunter and the new Raven.
- Sources: Knight Ridder, Associated Press, Times files and U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force Web sites.
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