WASHINGTON -- In a surprising policy shift yesterday, the Army abandoned the Comanche, a futuristic armed reconnaissance helicopter that had been in development for more than two decades at a cost of more than $7 billion.
The abrupt decision troubled officers involved in developing an Army for the 21st century, who said the swift, dual-engine craft built with stealth technology to evade radar and packed with sophisticated communications and surveillance technology was a key element in its future fighting force. It was due to go into production in 2007.
"It's a shock," said an Army officer, who requested anonymity. He claimed the Comanche was being sacrificed to finance operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. "They need the money," said the officer, who insisted the reconnaissance needs of the future Army will not be met without Comanche.
But critics of the helicopter, built by a consortium of Boeing and the Sikorsky Division of United Technologies, said the craft had been dogged by cost overruns and overtaken by technological developments, notably the unmanned "drone" aircraft that have been highly successful during combat and are favored by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
The Army announced that it was sending a budget amendment to Congress, with the approval of both President Bush and Rumsfeld, that would allow the Army to terminate the Comanche and shift $14.6 billion in 2004-2011 to buy or modernize about 1,400 current Army helicopters -- such as Apaches and Black Hawks --and purchase 800 more aircraft.
In addition, the Army will accelerate its unmanned aircraft programs, such as the existing Hunter and the new Raven.
"It's a big decision, but we know it's the right decision," said Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff.
This is the second large-scale Army weapons system canceled under the Bush administration and one of the biggest contracts canceled in Army history. It had been in production since the 1980s. The first was the Crusader, a 40-ton artillery system eliminated by Rumsfeld two years ago; $2 billion was spent on the Crusader program, which was slated to cost $11 billion.
The decision comes two months after the White House budget office ordered the Pentagon, in a memo obtained by The Sun, to review the Comanche program and the F/A-22 Raptor, a stealth warplane with a program price tag of about $72 billion. Both programs were fully funded for the current year, at a total of about $6 billion.
Sikorsky spokesman Matthew Broder told the Associated Press that "we are on track and fully funded until we hear otherwise." The Sikorsky plant in Bridgeport, Conn., where the Comanche is being built, opened last year and employs about 400 workers.
"The blow is obviously going to be devastating," Harvey Jackson, president of Teamsters Local 1150, which represents 3,600 Sikorsky workers, told AP.
Still, Sikorsky, Boeing and other defense contractors stand to gain from the Army's decision to modernize its current helicopter fleet and purchase new choppers, such as the Black Hawk, made by Sikorsky, and the heavy-lift Chinook transport helicopter made by Boeing.
The Army, which began to develop the Comanche more than two decades ago to fight the Soviets, has spent about $7 billion on it and will likely have to spend $2 billion or more to end the contracts. The total cost of the program was projected to be about $38 billion to build 650 of the helicopters.
Matters of money
Repairing and replacing the equipment of the first four Army divisions heading back from Iraq is expected to cost $4 billion to $5 billion, officials said.
Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based think tank, said it was clear that Schoomaker "didn't have enough money for every facet of his modernization plan" and after 20 years there was still no Comanche flying with Army troops.
Moreover, Army officials seem to be willing to see whether drones can prove themselves, said Thompson. One of Rumsfeld's key goals has been to see how technology, such as satellites, communications systems and drones, can be brought to bear on future battlefields.
"We don't know yet whether unmanned systems can fill the place of a manned helicopter," said Thompson.
Drone aircraft, which can spy and drop bombs, "seem to be promising," Andrew Krepinevich, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said recently. Moreover, he said, with the federal budget deficit now above $500 billion, "there's a lot of downward pressure on the defense budget."
An Army official, meanwhile, said that unmanned drones are "not a panacea" in warfare and that the "natural curiosity" of a manned aircraft can develop more effective reconnaissance, attack and intelligence.
Moreover, the Comanche is designed to work with two independent drones that will offer a wider view of the battlefield, the official said. The Comanche was meant to be an integral part of the Future Combat System, a network of armored vehicles and sensors that is still in development.
The Comanche was slated to fill the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance role for the FCS, and now the Army will have to scrap those plans and come up with something else, the official said.
Request for new plans
Army officials said yesterday that they would ask the defense industry to propose plans to build a new armed reconnaissance aircraft. Lt. Gen. Richard Cody, who heads Army operations, said no details are available except that an Army study determined a need for 368 new armed scout helicopters.
The Army also said in a statement that strengthening Army aviation "energizes the Army's commitment" to FCS and frees up money for accelerating other transformation programs through the next two decades.
Thompson, of the Lexington Institute, said that the FCS program is "fluid and nebulous" and the Army should be able to make any necessary changes.
The Comanche helicopter was scheduled to go into production in 2007, with the first 19 to be delivered in 2009, Army officials said.
Initially the Army, which started planning the Comanche in 1982 to replace its current Cobra and Kiowa helicopters, wanted 1,200 of the helicopters. The number then dropped to 800 and now to 650, with a total estimated cost of $38 billion.