WASHINGTON – In a dramatic about-face, the Army canceled its Comanche helicopter program Monday after sinking $6.9 billion and 21 years of effort into producing a new-generation chopper.
It is one of the biggest program cancellations in the Army's history and comes less than two years after the service's $11 billion Crusader artillery project (search) was dropped after $2 billion had been spent.
At a Pentagon news conference, senior Army leaders said they would propose to Congress that $14.6 billion earmarked to develop and build 121 Comanches between now and 2011 be used instead to buy 796 additional Black Hawk and other helicopters and to upgrade and modernize 1,400 helicopters already in the fleet.
"It's a big decision, but we know it's the right decision," said Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff. He said the Army also will invest more heavily in a variety of unmanned aircraft, such as the existing Hunter and the new Raven.
The Comanche decision reflects a growing realization in the Pentagon that the military has more big-ticket weapons projects in the works than it can afford, even after seeing the Pentagon budget grow by tens of billions of dollars since 2001. And it reflects the rising popularity in recent years of unmanned aircraft for surveillance as well as attack missions.
The RAH-66 Comanche helicopter project (search) was launched in 1983 and was eventually to have cost more than $39 billion. The Army said it needed a stealthier, more capable armed reconnaissance helicopter not only to collect and distribute battlefield intelligence but to destroy enemy forces.
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.
The per-unit cost of the scrapped helicopter has more than quadrupled, from $12.1 million per aircraft when the Army planned to buy 5,023 of them, to $58.9 million when the purchase was cut back to 650.
Even though the Comanche is dead, Army officials said they would ask the defense industry to propose plans to build a new armed reconnaissance aircraft. Lt. Gen. Richard Cody said no details are available except that an Army study determined a need for 368 new armed scout helicopters.
Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said in an interview that he believes Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is killing off big-ticket projects that were conceived during the Cold War and that are threatening to squeeze the financial life out of projects more essential to the military's modernization.
The Comanche, he said, was conceived to meet a valid need but is not crucial to the future.
"It was important to the Army but it wasn't the crown jewel," he said. "Some would say it was the crown."
Dropping the Comanche is unlikely to stir the kind of controversy sparked by Rumsfeld's decision in 2002 to kill the Crusader. Army leaders openly opposed that decision and they attempted to enlist support on Capitol Hill to keep the artillery program alive. In the case of the Comanche, Schoomaker stressed at Monday's news conference that it was an Army initiative.
Rumsfeld has emphasized leap-ahead technologies like unmanned aircraft. The Predator drone, for example, began as strictly a surveillance aircraft but during the 2001 war in Afghanistan it was armed with Hellfire missiles and used to attack ground vehicles. The Global Hawk unmanned long-range reconnaissance aircraft also saw its wartime debut over Afghanistan.
"They [unmanned aircraft] are a favorite of Rumsfeld's," Krepinevich said. "And they're a favorite for a good reason: They've performed well."
From the first days of the Bush administration there has been talk of canceling a number of major aviation projects, including the Marine Corps' V-22 Osprey (search) hybrid helicopter-airplane and the Air Force's F/A-22 Raptor fighter jet (search), but so far the Comanche has been the only casualty.
The White House budget office recently asked the Pentagon to provide independent reviews of the Comanche and the F/A-22, which is much further along in development and the Air Force's top priority.
Congressional lawmakers and company executives associated with the Comanche program were scrambling Monday to figure out what will happen next.
Five Comanche helicopters are in production. Sikorsky officials said they did not know what would become of them.
"What we need to do now is find out how the government wants us to proceed," spokesman Matt Broder said. "We're cataloging everything we know, and we're going to ask, 'What do you, the Army, want to do with all of this great technology that you funded? All these manufacturing processes that you funded? All the classified technology that's been developed?'"
Broder said it was too soon to predict the effect on Sikorsky jobs.
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," said Harvey Jackson, president of Teamsters Local 1150, which represents 3,600 Sikorsky workers.
Boeing spokesman John Morrocco said the company was "disappointed with the U.S. Army's decision to cancel the Comanche program." He said Boeing would reassign its employees to other military projects.
As envisioned by the Army, the Comanche was a twin-engine, two-pilot helicopter with stealth technology designed to make it more difficult to track and target by enemy radar. Its armaments include a 20mm gun, 2.75-inch aerial rockets and an air-to-air missile.