“We don’t get rewards for having antiques in the military,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld likes to say of the need to build more modern weapons. That, at least, is the theory.
Take the Army’s RAH-66 Comanche, a reconnaissance-attack light helicopter bristling with futuristic technologies.
Although it has been on the drawing board for almost 20 years and has yet to make more than a few prototype flights, it remains the Army’s only major aviation development program. Thanks to influential members of Congress, fierce corporate lobbying and an inflexible procurement system, the Comanche has turned into a vampire system — it has a voracious appetite for money, and you just about can’t kill it.
The Comanche is a marvel of “stealthy” design and fully digitized avionics, boasting twin 1,200-horsepower turbine engines; a vent system that cools hot exhaust that might attract heat-seeking missiles; a skin that plays no structural role, so anti-aircraft fire can pass right through it; targeting systems built right into the pilot’s and the gunner’s helmets. All this makes it an improvement on the choppers it would replace: the AH-l Cobra and the Vietnam-era UH-1 Huey and OH-58A Kiowa.
“If you know anything about what America’s war planners are going to face in the future ... armed reconnaissance is a given,” said Mike Blake, deputy program director for the joint Boeing Co. and Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. effort to build the helicopter. “So the question is how do you go about it, and if you don’t have the Comanche in 10 years, what to do in its place.”
Since the Boeing-Sikorsky team won the contract to develop an experimental light helicopter in the early 1980s, however, the Comanche has been sent back to the drawing board six times. Even though the helicopter has been hanging around in development and testing for 20 years, the Pentagon itself projects that the soonest it could reach the battlefield would be September 2009.
Earning a reputation
For proponents, the Comanche is the definition of the kind of modernization President Bush is championing, skipping the contemporary generation of weapons technology and jumping directly to systems built on the most recent innovations.
These supporters say it will ensure the Army’s strategic and tactical battlefield superiority deep into the century, one of the reasons the Army has funds in its budget to buy dozens — now carrying a price tag of more than $60 million apiece — every year until at least 2019 and perhaps as late as 2028.
That plan is challenged by critics outside and inside the government, including the Pentagon’s own internal watchdog, the Directorate of Operational Test and Evaluation, which concluded recently that “it is highly unlikely that the service can deliver the expected system performance within the current budget and schedule.”
Part of the problem is that plans for the Comanche have often outstripped the money available to pay for them. Time and again, Congress has scaled back the number of helicopters it will let the Army buy. From an original goal of deploying more than 1,200 Comanches, the Army now expects to make do with barely half that number.
“It was a classic case of a program’s resources not matching the milestones established for the program, which ultimately is poor program and budget management,” said an aide to Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on military procurement, who has been one of the Comanche’s biggest supporters for many years.
“When a program’s funds are cut so many times during [the] development cycle, it leads critics to believe that the service is not serious about its intent to field the system,” said the aide, who asked not to be identified. “It further loses support within the Office of Secretary of Defense since its need and requirement cannot be articulated.”
The Comanche program is now projected to cost more than $48 billion when all is said and done. More than $5 billion has already been spent on its development, even though it will be years before it flies in combat.
Overtaken by events
But equally as important, the Congressional Research Service pointed out in 2001, is that the “Comanche’s capabilities and mission requirements were developed in response to a Cold War threat environment that no longer exists.” Critics contend that you can accomplish the same goals more cheaply by upgrading the AH-64 Apache helicopter and supplementing it with unmanned reconnaissance aircraft.
That strikes advocates of the Comanche as reckless.
An unmanned craft cannot “distinguish between a school bus full of al-Qaida and a school bus full of eighth-graders,” said Blake, the Comanche’s program director. For that, he and others said, you need human eyes and human judgment.
“If you didn’t have the Comanche, you would have to invent the equivalent,” said Daniel Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a Washington policy institute, who is a defense analyst for NBC News.
Doubts it can ever work
Other experts have raised an even more serious question: whether the Comanche can ever be a functional weapons system.
The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, examined the checkered history of the Comanche for two years before issuing a scathing report in 2001. It found understated cost estimates, overly ambitious flight test schedules, inadequate testing facilities and serious problems with the aircraft’s weight.
“It is highly unlikely that the Army can deliver the expected system performance,” the GAO concluded.
The Congressional Research Service went even further, urging Congress in a report it issued about the same time to consider reducing or eliminating the program to free up money to build lightweight armored vehicles and create new mobile troop units.
Pointing to the Comanche’s far-off deployment prospects, critics argue that the government should cut its losses, skip yet another generation and move on to even more modern systems.
“We have found that the model we’ve always used for getting [weapon systems] into the marketplace or onto the battlefield doesn’t work as well in the post-Cold War era as it did 20 years ago,” said Christopher Hellman, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a nonprofit Pentagon watchdog.
What's going on?
There are a variety of reasons programs like the Comanche turn into vampires, hanging around in development for decades:
The Comanche involves 40 new components built in 21 states, whose lawmakers all argue that killing it would throw thousands of people out of work. It relies on 14 main suppliers at facilities stretching from Connecticut to California and from Vermont to Florida, meaning the pain caused by scrapping it would be felt in every part of the country.
Take, for example, Connecticut — home to Sikorsky’s manufacturing plant, as well as its parent company, United Technologies Corp., and one of the states whose economies relies most heavily on defense.
Both of the major defense systems built in Connecticut — the other is the nuclear submarines built by General Dynamic’s Electric Boat division in Groton — have been targeted by modernizers as out of step with the post-Cold War world. In response, the Connecticut congressional delegation has learned to hone its skills as battlers in the defense budget wars.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Democratic presidential candidate, has fought attempts to kill the Comanche vigorously. Connecticut’s other senator, Democrat Christopher Dodd, otherwise something of a dove on foreign policy, also has gone to bat for the system.
United Technologies has done its part, too. The Hartford-based giant was the second-largest contributor to Lieberman’s 2000 re-election campaign, according to Federal Election Commission disclosure forms compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. His office refused repeated requests for an interview. (United Technologies was also the largest non-financial company to break the top 10 contributors last year to the campaign to re-elect Dodd, a member of the Senate Banking Committee.)
Blake acknowledges the importance of playing the political game.
“I wish we had more of a presence in Oregon,” he said, “and then we might have a different kind of a reception” from Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio, a leader of the fight against the Comanche who requested the GAO’s 2001 study.
DeFazio did not respond to several requests for an interview.
- Inertia: In many cases, the Pentagon paints itself into a corner by latching onto one solution to a problem, locking itself into a single system design without considering alternatives.
“We basically have one builder of helicopters,” Hellman said. “There’s no one out there saying, ‘I can build you a better mousetrap.’ So there’s no incentive for these guys to find innovative ways of doing these things. They’re going to walk away with the contract no matter what happens.”
This is especially true with the Comanche, which is the Army’s only advanced armed-reconnaissance option. There is no backup plan, as even supporters of the Comanche acknowledge.
“It’s either this or nothing,” Goure said. “Nothing is not an option.”
So by now, with so much time and money having been expended, killing the Comanche would essentially be an admission that billions of dollars and entire careers had been wasted.
“Who wants to be the guy who presided over the demise of the Army’s one and only air asset?” Hellman asked. “That is not a star-getter at the Pentagon.”
- Godfathers: Vampire systems have strong supporters inside and outside the military who manage to overcome opposition even from the top civilian leaders at the Pentagon.
By definition, only one weapons system can be the “single most important” component of ensuring the nation’s military superiority, but each boasts a roster of ribbon-bedecked brass and private experts able to argue persuasively that theirs is it.
The Comanche’s godfathers are particularly heavy hitters. At one point early in the Bush administration, Rumsfeld was widely reported to have decided to kill it outright. But now, less than two years later, the debate has been transformed into how many Comanches to build, not whether to build them.
One of the godfathers is Army Secretary Thomas White, who has vowed, “We are going to get the bloody thing built.”
Another is Goure, who wields such influence that he was tapped as a member of Bush’s Pentagon transition team in 2001. He said that until recently, the Army had failed to go to bat for the Comanche sufficiently, allowing anxiety about its price tag to fester far too long.
“Let’s be honest about this,” he said. “This is a program that has gone on forever and ever and ever. ... They were correct to be suspicious, or at least concerned. The Army had to make a better case than it did.”
The aide to Weldon, the House military procurement leader, said lawmakers will be watching closely. “Congress, as the government oversight body responsible for spending taxpayer dollars wisely, has had to assume leadership for this program,” this aide said.
It is a challenge the Comanche team does not shy away from.
“We’ve been given the money; we’ve been given the contract that we think is a right match for the requirements,” said Blake, the deputy program director. “And [in] 2003, Boeing and Sikorsky have to demonstrate performance.”