Comanche termination marks beginning of the end for manned combat aircraft

April 1, 2004
Natural stick-and-rudder men like the legendary fighter pilot Chuck Yeager must have breathed a wistful sigh in late February when leaders of the U.S. Department of Defense moved to cancel the Boeing-Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche scout-attack helicopter — the crown jewel in the U.S. Army's aviation plans for the future.

By John Keller, chief editor Military & Aerospace Electronics

Natural stick-and-rudder men like the legendary fighter pilot Chuck Yeager must have breathed a wistful sigh in late February when leaders of the U.S. Department of Defense moved to cancel the Boeing-Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche scout-attack helicopter — the crown jewel in the U.S. Army's aviation plans for the future.

Army leaders put a good face on it Feb. 23 when they announced the end of the Comanche program, which they have defended to the last ditch since the futuristic aircraft first went up on the drawing board in the early 1980s as the "Light Helicopter Experimental," or LHX. They said the program's termination was all about getting the most bang for the buck for Army aviation, and it may well be. Nevertheless, there's something more fundamental involved.

The Comanche's termination means no less than the beginning of the end for the century-long era of manned combat aircraft.

One conspicuously cited reason for discontinuing the Comanche program is a new and growing emphasis on unmanned aerial vehicles — better known as UAVs. If Army leaders can cut bait on Comanche — long considered THE most important weapon system in Army development, then they have a lot of confidence in their latest plans for the future, and those plans rest heavily on UAVs.

This is not the only reason for the Comanche termination, of course. Army officials want to spend the money they would have allocated for the Comanche on upgrading existing aircraft, and developing a new light utility and reconnaissance aircraft. Comanche also is a child of the Cold War, and Army officials acknowledge that the battlefield today is far different from how it was two decades ago.

Yet unmanned aircraft represent at least one big nail in the Comanche's coffin. UAVs have taken a higher profile in military planning than they ever have before, and their future looks ever brighter. Today UAVs have taken a lead role in aerial reconnaissance and surveillance, and in the future undoubtedly will take their places among cargo and combat aircraft.

Long-range strategic reconnaissance missions increasingly go to the U.S. Air Force Global Hawk UAV, while theater-level tactical reconnaissance missions often go to the Predator UAV. The era of armed UAVs has begun, with armed versions of the Predator already in use in the Middle East.

The demise of Comanche does not signal a fast phase out of manned aviation, but it is one of the first major acknowledgements that for many of the aircraft missions envisioned for the future — armed reconnaissance, combat missions, communications and battle management, force replenishment, and damage assessment — unmanned aircraft can do the job, and will be ever more able to do so as UAV technology advances.

The end of Comanche presents a sobering realization for anyone in or around the Pentagon who is involved with military aviation programs. A tectonic shift of these proportions is bound to force all aviation experts to reexamine their programs and their justifications for manned versus unmanned aircraft.

When they total up all the figures, many of them will come to the conclusion more strongly perhaps than ever before that unmanned aircraft represent the wave of the future in military aviation, and perhaps for commercial aviation, as well.

I wouldn't be a bit surprised, in fact, to see a scaling back in other major military aviation programs such as the F/A-22 Raptor strike fighter, and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as a result of the attention to UAVs that the Comanche's cancellation will fuel.

Unmanned aircraft, after all, represent a quantum leap in military capability and economy of resources, and are uniquely suited to the way the United States wages modern warfare.

Computers, sensors, automation, fast wireless networking, and data security have reached the stage — or are fast approaching it — where they can provide the "brains, eyes, and ears" of unmanned aircraft performing routine missions.

In the future, electronic and optoelectronic technologies will be able to provide the intelligent control necessary for unmanned aircraft to take on more demanding missions, such as air-to-air combat, precision strike, bomb damage assessment, and perhaps even search and rescue.

It is not necessary to design unmanned aircraft to accommodate human operators, so they can be built smaller than today's aircraft, more aerodynamic, and more maneuverable. Rugged electronic components and small airframes, after all, can tolerate far higher G forces than a human can.

The political considerations of unmanned aircraft in combat operations cannot be underestimated. The American public today will not tolerate many battlefield casualties; that's political reality. Let's face it; the American public doesn't care much when a UAV is destroyed in the line of duty.

Think back: some of the biggest and most long-lived news stories of the first Persian Gulf War of 1991 involved combat pilots who were shot down behind enemy lines. With UAVs doing most of the work in future conflicts, considerations for protecting human pilots and searching for those who are shot down will be largely things of the past.

The capabilities of future networked UAVs make the stuff that military commanders only dream of. Small, fast, agile, lethal, and relatively inexpensive UAVs could be built in large numbers that would be relatively easy to move to theaters where they are most needed.

These new generations of UAVs could swarm an enemy with little or no loss of American or allied lives. The closer one looks, the case for unmanned aircraft becomes ever-more compelling, and this realization could end up being the Comanche's most valuable legacy.

The age of the unmanned aerial vehicle is upon us; Comanche's cancellation is conclusive evidence of that. The end of that aircraft is the beginning of the end of manned aircraft for all but the most niche and demanding missions.

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