Procurement: February 25, 2004

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The U.S. Army announced its intention to cancel the $38 billion Comanche attack helicopter program. The cancellation of the stealthy attack helicopter is partly due to the $60 million-per-helicopter price tag, and partially due to the explosion of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). A total $8 billion has already been spent, and when one adds the termination fees (estimated at any where from $2 to $4 billion dollars) for the contract, it will rank as one of the largest cancellations ever.

The immediate effect is that the Army will have to rely on the older OH-58 Kiowa Warrior (first flown on September 10, 1966) and AH-1 Cobra (first flown on September 8, 1965) helicopters for the near future. The RAH-66 Comanche was intended to replace those aircraft, which are both approaching 40 years old.

For the reconnaissance missions the OH-58 flew, all weapons (six Hellfires or up to a dozen Stingers) would be in an internal bay. For the attack missions the AH-1 specialized in, wing stubs could be added to provide room for an additional eight Hellfires. This flexibility, along with advanced sensors like the Longbow radar and stealth technology, would have made the Comanche the best attack helicopter in the world. But, the Comanche would not have been a whole lot better than the Apache.

The emergence of UAVs in the battlefield reconnaissance role is probably the secondary factor in the cancellation of the Comanche. The primary factor leading to the cancellation is cost. It is cheaper to upgrade existing helicopters or to build more Apaches for the attack role (while relying on UAVs for reconnaissance). The Army needs more money for replenishing its stocks of ammunition, maintaining helicopters currently in operation, and to train more troops. Considering the fact that other platforms had the Comanches missions covered well enough, the 650 Comanches that had been planned for were seen as no longer necessary by 
the Pentagon, and it would free up the money for the more pressing needs of the war on terrorism. This would be true even if the planned Comanche purchase is replaced on a one-for-one basis by new AH-64 Apaches (which cost only $25 million per helicopter). The Apache has a proven track record in four wars (Desert Storm, Allied Force, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom) since its introduction in 1984.

That said, the Armys decision will not be the final word on this matter. The final decision will come from Congress, which has saved weapons systems from cancellation in the past. Just ask Vice President Dick Cheney, who as Secretary of Defense tried to cancel the V-22 Osprey in 1989 due to cost concerns, but was overruled by Congress, keeping the tilt-rotor aircraft alive. Harold C. Hutchison (hchutch@ix.netcom.com)

 


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