The USA has decided that Boeing/Sikorsky's RAH-66 should be sacrificed to cure the rest of army aviation's woes. And it is right

The sudden death of the RAH-66 Comanche last week came after the US Army made a sensible determination. The stealthy helicopter's long-promised potential fell short of a critical need to "fix" the rest of army aviation, which has been approaching crisis point. Comanche's Cold War cousins - the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F/A-22 Raptor, Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey and other weapons that supporters now confidently recast as effective in modern conflict - deserve a similar analysis.

The Boeing/Sikorsky rotorcraft was partly the victim of a simple trade-off. For $14.6 billion, the army could buy the first 121 Comanches (assuming that development and production continued on schedule). Or, if the army is to be believed, it could solve virtually all of its aviation problems, correcting years of budget shortfalls by transferring the funds to buy active self-protection systems, Boeing AH-64D Apache upgrades, more Boeing CH-47 Chinooks and Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks and three new aircraft fleets designed to address emerging needs.

This trade-off is possible thanks to a policy within the Department of Defense (DoD) that now allows the services to scrap unneeded programmes with the assurance that the savings will be returned to their modernisation accounts, rather than dispersed to cover other needs elsewhere in the military. An example is the US Air Force's 2001 decision to retire one-third of its Rockwell B-1B fleet, redirecting the operating funds saved to finance long-needed upgrades for the bomber.

Ironically for a stealthy helicopter, it was survivability concerns that ultimately scuppered the Comanche. In part to justify its cancellation, the army finally revealed last week the full roster of helicopters lost to hostile fire in Iraq. Nine aircraft have been shot down by a mix of surface-to-air-missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire, killing 32 US troops.

Active self-protection has since become army aviation's top priority, leading to accelerated development and deployment at the advanced threat infrared countermeasures system. The $38 billion Comanche programme did not include an active jammer, a deficiency army leaders claimed would take billions of dollars more to correct.

In the end, the helicopter downings in Iraq confirmed that one unique Comanche attribute - low observability - had lost its cachet. Stealth, alas, is unable to hide a helicopter flying over urban rooftops in broad daylight. While Boeing/Sikorsky's design was struggling to meet some radar cross-section goals, even the baseline stealth requirements would offer no protection on a modern battlefield pocked with shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missile launchers.

The army's decision is proper, if about 10 years and nearly $7 billion of development funds too late. It is in keeping with the Pentagon's stated goal of foregoing outmoded weapons programmes to focus on transformational capabilities. It is also fitting that the US Air Force's prized Raptor is now under a similar microscope. In an unrelated move one week before the Comanche was scrapped, the White House budget office directed the DoD to re-evaluate both the RAH-66 and F/A-22. The study is to evaluate whether or not these aircraft will "change the way the army and air force organise and operate, or whether these programmes are merely another step in the evolution of rotary-wing and manned fighter aircraft technology," says the White House.

In addition, the study will address whether or not new transformational programmes are being pursued or are receiving less funding because of the RAH-66 and Raptor. But it is not apparent that the F/A-22 is at risk, or is deserving, of cancellation. Indeed, there are enough notable differences between the two programmes to almost rule out the possibility of an untimely end to the Raptor.

For example, the Block 3 Apache is the functional equivalent of Block 1 Comanche with the now-redundant exception of stealth. By contrast, the F/A-22's promised performance has no near-peer. While Comanche's relevance was allowed to drift, air force leaders were willing to swallow major cost increases to adapt an air-superiority platform to post-Cold War roles, such as ground attack.

But what is needed is an effort to recalibrate, if necessary, the original and added-on capabilities of the F/A-22. The DoD study should assess whether the USAF's two-year-old effort to reshape the Raptor's mission has been matched by the technical resources to make it effective. Talk of an FB-22 fighter-bomber is enough to make an observer wonder if that is closer to the weapon the air force truly needs.

Source: Flight International