TCS Daily

Further Transformed

By Melana Zyla Vickers - March 9, 2004 12:00 AM

Better late than never -- that's how to assess the Army's decision to eliminate its Comanche helicopter program. And with the Army now having completed an intelligent yet difficult set of amputations, the question is which service will be brave enough to follow its lead.

The Comanche, an armed reconnaissance helicopter that was stealthy but not stealthy enough, and sophisticated in information processing but not sophisticated enough, needed to be let go. Built to Cold War specs, it had been overtaken by numerous other, more advanced weapons systems.

Second-rate stealth: The Comanche was promoted for its ability to sneak over enemy territory stealthily and to conduct reconnaissance or attack from there. Yet of the four dimensions of stealth -- radar, infrared, noise and visual -- the Comanche largely blew two, noise and visual. It flew low as helicopters are wont to do, and consequently was within view and range of all manner of air defenses. It was quieter than other helicopters thanks to mufflers, but could still be heard. Its lack of stealth imperiled its crew, and made unmanned helicopters -- such as the as-yet unbuilt, experimental "unarmed combat air rotorcraft" or UCAR, and UAVs, a far more attractive option.

Second-rate precision: The Comanche was promoted, during the Cold War and even afterwards, for its precision strike capability through missiles. But the precision-strike systems we have seen perform so well in Iraq and Afghanistan leave Comanche in the dark ages. These days all U.S. aircraft are precision capable, and munitions can pinpoint their targets. There's no reason to risk pilots in a Comanche when a fixed-wing aircraft, flying high above the threat of small arms, will do.

Second-rate information processing: The Comanche was promoted as the "quarterback of the battlefield," a platform through which to direct the battle by, say, seeing a tank and informing a nearby attack helicopter, or U.S. tanks, to attack it. But just as the mainframe and central processor gave way to the PC, the "quarterback of the battlefield" concept has given way to the networked battlefield. As we saw in Iraq, nowadays a UAV sees a tank, the information goes to a satellite, and almost instantly Air Force aircraft, Navy ships and Army units see the tank and can attack it.

For all those criticisms, Comanche still featured significant improvements over the AH-64 Apache helicopter. But in the end the Comanche was precisely the sort of weapons system that presidential candidate Bush vowed to cancel when he said in 1999, that the U.S. would "skip a generation of weapons."

The Army has now canned two such relics of the Cold War, Comanche and Crusader, freeing up resources for new acquisitions and for grossly underfunded current operations in the war on terror. It's high time that the other services, themselves laboring under the weight of useless, unhealthy appendages, came under the knife.

Marines: The V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft is a great candidate for amputation. While it has greater range and speed than traditional helicopters, recent improvements in helicopter technology offer the promise of comparable increases in speed and range at a far lower cost.

Navy: The service's insufficiently stealthy next-generation destroyer, the DDX should be deep-sixed. Again, it's an advanced ship but its capabilities can be provided more stealthily and cheaply by the SSGN converted Trident missile subs.

Air Force: The service is weighed down by an absurd overinvestment of close to $200 billion in new short-range tactical fighters. The service should radically scale back or cancel its participation in the joint strike fighter program, so that the service can get on with building the aircraft this country really needs, such as a new, long-range stealthy bomber.

It took the Army two rounds to react bravely to necessary amputations. The service kicked and screamed when the Office of the Secretary of Defense canceled the not-terribly-useful Crusader field artillery piece. The secretary of the Army and top brass complained and undermined the cut so much that the secretary lost his job over it.

By contrast, with Comanche, new Army Chief of Staff Gen. Pete Schoomaker read the writing on the wall and volunteered the cut himself, ensuring that his service would be less recalcitrant. With two major Cold War programs eliminated, the Army has taken the necessary pain, and will now reap gains.

Here's hoping the leaders of the Air Force, Marines and Navy -- as well as their pals on Capitol Hill -- will be men enough to follow Schoomaker's example.

Melana Zyla Vickers recently wrote for TCS about the implications of capture of Saddam Hussein.


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