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Tuesday February 24, 2004 :

US Army terminates Comanche copter

WASHINGTON, USA ( By Bryan Bender, Boston Globe ) - The US Army announced yesterday that it is canceling the Comanche helicopter program after spending nearly $7 billion over the past decade on the project once hailed as a key weapon for the 21st-century battlefield.

The termination -- expected to affect at least 1,300 jobs in five states, including an estimated 600 at Sikorsky Aircraft in Connecticut -- marks the second major Army procurement to be eliminated in as many years (Helis.com note: the other was the XM2001 Crusader Artillery program in 2002) and one of the largest weapons systems to be canceled.

An internal Army study recommended that the estimated $39 billion slated for the much-delayed Comanche project, which saw the cost of each helicopter jump from $12 million to $59 million, be used to buy proven alternatives and upgrade the current fleet, including the Black Hawk, which has been overtaxed in the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Acting Army Secretary Les Brownlee announced the decision at the Pentagon yesterday, saying the recommendation was approved by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and President Bush.

The decision, first reported early yesterday by Insidedefense.com, a defense industry news site, immediately set off alarms among the program's supporters in Congress, who questioned why the Army was canceling what it has described for years as one of its top priorities, and pledged to fight the decision. Connecticut's senators, Democrats Joseph I. Lieberman and Christopher Dodd, expressed particular concern for the jobs that could be lost at Sikorsky, headquartered in Bridgeport, which was building the aircraft along with Boeing.

"It simply doesn't make sense to pull the plug on the Comanche," Dodd said in a statement. He vowed to oppose the decision and "seek to retain the Comanche as part of our arsenal."

Lieberman said he was "outraged," "given that the Army has long argued that it is a critical weapons system that plays a pivotal role in our military's transformation." He said that "canceling Comanche will not only cost jobs, it could also weaken our national security."

Sikorsky said in a statement that "we are surprised and disappointed by the Army's announcement."

But government watchdog groups lauded the decision, saying the program has long been plagued with cost overruns, schedule delays, and an overzealous desire to include unproven technologies. They agreed that investing in proven helicopter designs would be a better investment of taxpayer dollars.

The Comanche was initially conceived in 1983 to be nearly invisible to radar, perform reconnaissance missions for Army ground forces deep inside enemy territory, and with its state-of-the-art electronics serve as the "quarterback of the digital battlefield." However, the military's recent experiences in more unconventional warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq convinced Army leaders that the helicopter was no longer suited for the types of battlefields US forces are expected to confront in coming years, officials said.

"If you take a look at when Comanche was envisioned, starting in 1983, and you take a look at the threat that we faced at that time and the kind of battlefield that we envisioned, Comanche made a lot of sense," Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker said. "But it makes less sense today."

Of particular concern is the growing missile threat now facing the Army's current helicopter models, including the Black Hawk, Apache, Kiowa Warrior, and Chinook. Nine Army helicopters have been shot down in the last 2 1/2 years, killing 32 soldiers. And the Army acknowledges that the helicopters used by the National Guard and Army Reserve are being utilized nearly as much as the active forces, but are less equipped with armor and avionics to operate in hostile environments.

Army officials said the money saved from ending the Comanche program -- it was estimated that $39 billion would buy 650 helicopters -- would be used to upgrade current helicopters and to develop new, less costly models. For example, with the $14.6 billion that was to be spent to purchase 121 Comanches between now and 2011, the Army will be able to upgrade 801 helicopters and purchase 903 new ones. Without that money it would only be able to upgrade 408 helicopters and purchase 107 new ones.

Schoomaker said the decision was recommended solely by the Army, unlike Rumsfeld's decision to terminate the $11 billion Crusader artillery system in 2002 over the Army's objections.

Army officials said the new strategy for Army aviation would probably alleviate any burdens placed on the Comanche manufacturers -- and means even more business over the longer term -- because the firms will be in line for new work, including more Black Hawks, now manufactured by Sikorsky.

  • news: Army sign pre-production MOU May 20,1999
  • news: US Army wants 1213 Comanche helicopters April 4,2000
  • news: US Army wants fewer Comanches Sept. 25,2002
  • news: US Army requests Comanche termination Febr. 23,2004 Press Release
  • RAH-66 Comanche page
  • Boeing timeline
  • Sikorsky timeline


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