US Army calls time on Comanche

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STEPHEN TRIMBLE / WASHINGTON DC

Cancellation of the helicopter programme will help finance a $14.6 billion overhaul of the service's aviation arm

No effective opposition has emerged to block a US Army proposal last week to bankroll a $14.6 billion overhaul of its aviation branch by cancelling the Boeing/Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche helicopter. Congress is expected to vote within two weeks to scrap Comanche, the troublesome centrepiece of the army aviation's weapons strategy since its inception in 1983.

The cancellation comes after $6.9 billion has been spent on the project.

If approved, the army will launch a sweeping modernisation using the leftover funds from the Comanche's five-year spending plan. Three new aircraft programmes - for 368 armed reconnaissance helicopters, 303 light utility helicopters and 25 fixed-wing intratheatre transports - are to be launched.

But the army's first priority is accelerating the deployment of active protection systems against surface-to-air missile threats to the existing fleet. Comanche's downfall would also result in upgrading 284 Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbows to Block 3 standard. Funds would be earmarked to raise next year's Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk purchase from 101 to 181, and add 56 more Boeing CH-47 Chinooks.

Another $300 million would be invested in accelerating unmanned air vehicle programmes, including the proposed extended-range multipurpose unmanned air vehicle. Research and development would begin for the Joint Multirole Helicopter, due to begin replacing the H-60 after 2020.

"We want to buy 800 new aircraft, fully [recapitalise] 1,400 of our aircraft, fully wire our fleet for aircraft survivability equipment, and double the buy of...jammers and chaff and flare systems," says US Army operations deputy chief Lt Gen Richard Cody. "It fully fleshes out the multifunctional brigades we're building for the army, and it moves us towards modularity."

Boeing and Sikorsky are left with two RAH-66 prototypes and five machines now in various stages of assembly. Termination payments to the contractors are expected to cost $450-680 million, minimally offsetting an estimated industry loss of about $2.7 billion. At least 1,600 workers at Sikorsky, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, plus 400 government employees, will be affected by the decision.

The proposal dramatically caps army chief of staff Gen Peter Schoomaker's six-month review of the aviation branch, tasked with identifying capability gaps, transferring special-operations capabilities to the conventional helicopter force and proposing a modular unit structure that is easier to deploy.

Army aviation, however, has been saddled with a massive modernisation bill dominated by Comanche development, which was expected to consume 40% of the force's overall funding resources through 2009.

But with nine US helicopters shot down in Iraq, there is an urgent requirement to deploy active self-protection systems, leading army leaders to question Comanche's potential vulnerability on a modern battlefield. Designed to be stealthy, the RAH-66 lacks an active jammer.

"The operational environment has changed," says Cody. "[In addition] we now have new types of capabilities to deal with the radar threat environment that 13 or 14 years ago we did not have in the joint force."