The Pentagon's surprise decision to cancel the Comanche program has been widely hailed as proof of its new determination to transform itself. That the Pentagon will save around $14.6 billion in production costs is also widely applauded, as is the U.S. Army's promise to recoup some of the $6.9-billion development costs by retrofitting Comanche subsystems to other helicopters, such as Apache.
Alas, this conventional wisdom is far off the mark. The decision to axe the Comanche program is wrong, and it won't be too long before its drawbacks become all too apparent.
The first consequence of the Comanche's demise is that the average age of the U.S. military helicopter fleet will continue to rise. Most helicopters now in service were designed 30 or 40 years ago, and the Pentagon's much-loved upgrades, service life extension programs and other facelifts are not enough to hide their deepening wrinkles.
For example, while its proponents may well enthuse that the Marine Corps' UH-1Y offers a "70-percent life-cycle cost-saving against the competition," and will save the Marines more than $1 billion, it nonetheless derives from a design that is over 40 years old, and that is still eons behind the latest technologies, such as fly-by-wire flight controls and composite airframes.
The same can be said of most other helicopters in the Pentagon inventory, such as the CH-46, CH-47, CH-53, and OH-58. Even the two most modern Army designs, the Black Hawk and the Apache, first flew nearly 30 years ago: the Black Hawk in 1974 and the Apache in 1975.
The first consequence of the Pentagon's addiction to upgrading older systems to death is the loss of export contracts, as overseas military operators increasingly prefer EH101s, NH90s and Tigers to the Black Hawk and Apache of the previous generation. The Nordic countries, Portugal, Greece, Spain and Australia are recent examples. This is one reason why axing the Comanche-the only modern military helicopter in the Pentagon's pipeline-was wrong: it will further convince export customers that U.S. helicopter designs are outdated.
The Pentagon rightly says that U.S. industry will benefit from new helicopter buys announced at the same time as the Comanche's termination. However, these benefits will be either short-term or too far off, such as the development of a new heavy cargo helicopter to enter service in 2020. In the interim, there will be precious little new work that can help develop civil helicopters except, of course, for the OH-58D's successor.
Canceling Comanche also will not cancel the need to replace the OH-58s. For that, the Army will have to launch an entirely new armed reconnaissance helicopter program. The Army plans to buy 368.
After factoring in the termination fees and penalties for Comanche (an estimated $450-460 million) and new development costs, it is not immediately clear that the new program will offer any financial benefits-but it clearly will postpone the OH-58D's retirement by a decade or so.
A second point is that the Pentagon says Comanche was ripe for cancellation because "rocket-propelled grenade and missile attacks on U.S. helicopters in Iraq have shown that the Comanche's stealthiness would not be as useful as it was thought." Les Brownlee, acting secretary of the Army, says Block III Apaches will have all of Comanche's capabilities "with the exception of one, and that's the low observability [which] we think is not where we should put our focus."
This is clearly preposterous. It is intuitively clear to any half-brain that large helicopters with large infrared signatures (read Apache) are easier to shoot down than small, agile helicopters with small IR, visual and noise signatures (read Comanche).
This is not just this writer's eccentric view. Until recently, Army commanders were saying Comanche was the greatest thing since sliced bread. While attending a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new Sikorsky facility in New Haven, Connecticut, last September, Lt. Gen. John M. Riggs said "If anyone ever questions the need for [Comanche], the events of the last two years make it clear we need this system now more than ever."
In January, Gen. Richard Cody, the Army's deputy chief of staff, called Comanche "the best aircraft we've ever built ... We now have an aircraft with no limitations except the pilot."
This is apparently no longer true. If one follows the Pentagon's new thinking to its logical conclusion, the only satisfactory replacement for the OH-58D is either an armor-plated CH-53E or a flying battleship.
The abruptness of the Army's about-face raises doubts about its sincerity. It smells very strongly of political spin, intended to suggest that the Bush administration is prudently managing its defense spending, even as it requests a record $402-billion Fiscal 2005 defense budget-and more to come to pay for Iraq's occupation.
There has been enough political spin on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Let's not have it on helicopters as well.