February 24, 2004

Why not Comanche?

There may be a legion of reasons the Army would like to pull funding from the RAH-66 Comanche program, as was announced today. There may be a myriad of epic backroom politics, a plethora of front-chamber deals, and perhaps even a personal grudge or six involved. I don't know. I, personally, fixate on one aspect of the whole situation: the Silver Bullet Syndrome.

Put bluntly (and the Army has, publicly) we just don't need the Comanche at this time. I am personally somewhat surprised that an Armed Service has apparently decided to give up a 'sexy new' program in order to (they claim) handle the more mundane demands of force integration and readiness, but here we are. I will strike out on a limb and state that personally, I consider this but the first high-profile casualty of the current state of 'continuous sort-of war' that the United States seems to have slid into.

For those not in the know, the Comanche was to be the Army's next-generation 'armed reconnaissance' helicopter. It was to be stealthier than the Apache, faster than the current scout, the OH-54 Kiowa, and armed somewhere between the two. The concept was aired almost twenty years ago, when the demands on Army Aviation were fairly fixed - support the ground force maneuver war doctrine, against a notional large-scale armored and mechanized opponent in the European theater.

Under those conditions, an armed scout made sense. On a fluid mechanized battlefield, the most lethal threats a helo was likely to face were mounted air defense platforms such as the ZSU-23, and perhaps high-tech MANPADS in the hands of infantry - but only at close range. The role of the scout helicopter was to range ahead of the main force, locating targets, calling in fires, and - if necessary - providing emergency fast-moving firepower to augment lighter units. The Apache was the firepower, really; heavily armed, and armored, it was intended to go in harm's way by ambushing oncoming units. Using it to perform interdiction strikes and more offensive sweep operations, as the Army began to do in the Gulf War, was not originally on its agenda.

Fast forward to today. Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that the most severe threat to helicopters is not high-tech; it's low-tech. Massed small-arms fire, RPGs and man-portable automatic weapons are by far the most common threat to American helicopters operating in the field. While there are, indeed, MANPADS strikes on helos, they are (so far) exclusively IR guided, line-of-sight shots - against which the vaunted stealth of the Comanche offers no protection. Furthermore, in such operating conditions, two things offer better chances of survival - armor and redundancy, as the Apache has, or massive suppressing fire, which the Apache also has. A large degree of survivability could be added to the existing utility helo fleet through the installation of flare and chaff dispensers, perhaps; but this costs money.

The Army notes another problem. There is no standard aviation unit at present. There is a wild mix of airframes and numbers across the various aviation brigades in the force; Reserve units are still using 1970s AH-1s and UH-1s instead of Apaches and Blackhawks. This means that there is almost no commonality in the logistics tail between a frontline unit and its reserve aviation component.

Basically, the Army is proposing to take the huge chunks of money already allocated to Comanche - $17 billion at minimum, through 2010 - and to refit the existing units with aircraft identical to the present frontline units, as well as to upgrade the existing aircraft with survivability and lethality improvements, and to fund the readiness of the aviation component. This is a fairly radical proposal for American defense procurement. Note that they're not talking about giving the money back, just spending it elsewhere. The base effect would be to ensure that when units are deployed, they would deploy with a common set of aircraft; to ensure that there are additional heavy attack helos (Apaches) to meet demand, and to fund long-lead and marginal spares and training to keep availability up.

This doesn't leave us entirely without scouts; the OH-54D Kiowa Warriors are not all that old, and will be around for some time. Plus, the Apache Longbow upgrades include the addition of a mast-mounted sensor array (MMS) similar to what the Warriors carry; these units will be able to perform the original mission - long-range scouting in a maneuver battle - and purchasing additional units means that they can do so without detracting from the available combat power of the main force.

There are, of course, questions that must be asked. To wit: Why was this decision made now, after the Comanche plant had been built? Is this related to the constant stresses of post-9/11 OPTEMPO and the consequent demands on the aviation forces? Are we really sure that we want to give up the high-tech anti-armor (and, lest it be forgot, stealthy Special Ops strike support) capabilities that the Comanche would have offered? If, in fact, this is due to the increased demands on the aviation forces that the present one-point-five wars are making, why is this shortfall being met by reallocating Army capital budgets rather than by additional outlays for readiness and operations? Coupled with the four service Chiefs' testimony before Congress that none of their services had received any information about special drafts to fund the coming year's operations, this is a pertinent issue. There are rumblings that the Bush administration is planning on delaying any such funding requirements until after the election, which, while legal, borders on the pusillanimous, especially if it leaves our forces in any way compromised. Given the present state of affairs, I do not trust the Bush administration (or, for that matter, the Chiefs of service, albeit for different and more understandable reasons) to tell me, as an American citizen, when my armed forces are being hamstrung for political expediency. Posted by jbz at February 24, 2004 12:57 AM

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