After Comanche

April 1, 2004
The cancellation of the U.S. Army's RAH-66 Comanche helicopter program Feb. 23 raises questions that go far beyond this particular weapon system — in fact that go beyond all military hardware programs and all the way up to the rationale for the current defense buildup.

By John Rhea

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WASHINGTON — The cancellation of the U.S. Army's RAH-66 Comanche helicopter program Feb. 23 raises questions that go far beyond this particular weapon system — in fact that go beyond all military hardware programs and all the way up to the rationale for the current defense buildup.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in effect applied the same logic in killing this program that he did when he canceled the Army's $11 billion Crusader 155-millimeter self-propelled howitzer program two years ago: it cost too much and it lacked a clear mission in an ever-changing defense environment. At the time, it was obvious that Comanche would be on the short list of programs getting special scrutiny from the Pentagon bean counters, along with the Marine Corps V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft.

That situation prevails today. Also likely to be on that list are the U.S. Air Force's F/A-22 Raptor jet fighter, the multiservice F-35 joint strike fighter, and the U.S. Navy's Virginia-class attack submarines. In the parlance of stock car racing, all these programs are "on the bubble"; that is, they trail their rivals in the advanced development qualifying heats and face the prospect of being dropped from the main event of production and deployment.

What those programs have in common — even more than Comanche, but like Crusader — is their predication on countering a technologically sophisticated adversary. The tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, changed that equation.

The facts of the troubled Comanche program have been widely reported, but it might be useful to review them with an eye toward heading off these shortcomings in the programs currently on the bubble.

Comanche was the classical case of out-of-control cost escalation that the Pentagon tried to remedy by reducing the total procurement. At its inception in 1983, Comanche procurement was projected at 2,096 aircraft at a program unit cost of $8 million. The total buy was shaved to 1,213 and then to 650 as the unit cost soared to $53 million.

Sunk costs to date — principally funding of the program's prime contractors, Chicago-based Boeing Co. and the Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. unit of United Technologies Corp. in East Hartford, Conn. — reached $6.9 billion, and the Defense Department estimated it would take $39 billion to complete the program. This in itself is not cause for concern. New technologies are inherently expensive, and Comanche's electro-optical sensors and millimeter-wave radar are no exception. Also, reducing the total buy automatically drives up the program unit cost.

The real issue concerning Comanche, and the issue to be addressed in assessing other programs on the bubble, is whether they are the most cost-effective way to do the job.

In the wake of the Comanche cancellation, the Army essentially has two choices — and should pursue both.

As John Keller, editor in chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics, writes on page 1 of this issue, this should be a boost for the long-overdue utilization of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in roles in which they are potentially superior to conventional manned aircraft: reduced cost, improved performance, and enhanced personal safety.

The other route is to invest the money that would have been spent on Comanche into existing helicopter programs. The Army in effect committed itself to this route by announcing that it would buy up to 800 additional AH-64 Apache and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, and modernize 1,400 of its current helicopters.

From the standpoint of avionics suppliers, the Comanche cancellation may actually prove to be a boost to their business. In addition to creating new opportunities to supply avionics subsystems for the UAVs, they also potentially get access to more helicopter airframes. As far as the avionics suppliers are concerned, one airframe is as good as another and the more the merrier. The net result may be to shift defense spending from metal to electronics.

The more troubling issue for the defense industry (and all Americans) is whether the current rapid expansion of federal spending will lead to major retrenchments downstream. This will obviously be a major issue in the current presidential election campaign.

An ultraconservative think tank, the Washington-based Cato Institute, sounds a disturbing warning and calls the Bush administration "the mother of all big spenders" in a report issued March 3.

"Although defense spending has increased in response to the war on terrorism, President Bush has made little attempt to restrain non-defense spending to offset the higher Pentagon budget," writes fiscal policy analyst Veronique de Rugy. "Nondefense discretionary outlays [those other than such entitlement programs as Social Security and Medicare] will increase about 36 percent during President Bush's first term in office."

The report, The Republican Spending Explosion, does not address the issue of tax cuts, but instead focuses on government spending across the board and comes to startling conclusions.

"The president's new budget [FY 2005] shows that real discretionary defense spending will increase 36 percent between FY 2001 and FY 2005," according to de Rugy. "Only Lyndon Johnson outpaced President Bush's spending. President Reagan boosted real defense outlays by 26 percent during his first term, but he also cut real nondefense outlays by 10 percent."

What makes this assessment so disturbing is that it resurrects the guns versus butter issue that dogged President Johnson in his attempt to cope with the deteriorating situation in Vietnam. He tried to have both, even without tax cuts, and the results were disastrous. This issue was presumably laid to rest with the collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the so-called peace dividend in which defense spending dropped. The Cato Institute cites Congressional Budget Office figures that show that all federal outlays have risen from less than 18.5 percent of GDP in 2000 to nearly 20 percent today.

In this context, Comanche may be an omen that bears watching. The issue shouldn't be guns versus butter; it should be determining the optimum ratio of guns and butter.

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