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This article was Originally Published on Jul 01, 2002 in Volume: 1  Issue: 3

Commanche Gets a Ringing Endorsement

Despite some bureaucratic and technical turbulence, the Commanche helicopter has managed to survive.

By David C. Walsh

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The RAH-66 Comanche helicopter - a product of Boeing Co. - Sikorsky team - is a pure survivor.

Pentagon planners are giving the wasp-like two-seater program another restructuring, certain that it will become the transformational solution to the problem of an aging helicopter fleet, now with some 1,500 'legacy' birds from the Vietnam War and later conflicts, all becoming more and more difficult to fix..

There have been, over the years, questions about the Comanche program. The General Accounting Office (GAO) issued two reports, in 1999 and in 2002 that suggest a few difficulties - principally the need for stronger project direction and the best ways to integrate its sophisticated electronics packages.

Such observations, though, seemed only to galvanize the Comanche team to get everything right.  Army Col. Bob Birmingham, its project manager, explained what the bird can do and why expert helicopter pilots want it in the fleet.

"Comanche," Birmingham told MAT, "deserves to be the Army's future armed reconnaissance aircraft, to complement the Army and the Objective Force."

Just the facts

In the past, Birmingham acknowledged, GAO was often right.

"Don't get me wrong," he said from the Joint Program Office at Redstone Arsenal, AL, "I think criticism is a good thing for programs if based on fact. A lot of the data the GAO reports provided Congress were right on track."

He acknowledged critics who noted that Comanche was unable to perform the Apache Longbow strike helicopter's mission, for example. But he also set the record straight.

"If that's because it can't carry as many Hellfire missiles as Longbow, I would say it's absolutely correct," Birmingham said. "And if we're buying this aircraft is to replace the load-carrying capability of the Apache, then we ought to stop the program right now, because that's not what we're doing in structuring the Comanche's missions."

A lot more important, the colonel said, is the "next-generation" chopper's multi-purpose nature. He called it "extremely flexible," and able to launch Hellfire missiles, air-to-air missiles, precision guided rockets, and 500 rounds of 20 mm ammunition, "or, drop some ammo and put in additional fuel cells." The helicopter does not, Birmingham stressed, sacrifice weapons systems for its high speed and unrivaled maneuverability.

In any case, he said, "those are all things that we took into account when we started going through the restructuring process. We wanted to make sure whatever program we put in front of the Army and the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) as the go-ahead program would answer all those issues. And I think we have."

The restructuring paradigm

The Comanche program, since 1988, has experienced six restructurings, with many interlaced systems and the introduction of an amazing mission equipment package.

Birmingham said he only wished that there would be adequate time and money to assure everything onboard the helicopter is in place and buttoned down tight in the concluding stages of development. Earlier, he noted, that wasn't always the case.

The estimated $43 billion project, first considered in 1983, actually began in 1991.

"You're going back to when the concepts for a Light Helicopter Experimental, or LHX, were first being studied. They included anything from a single seat aircraft to a tandem. They looked at a lot of versions back in 1983."

He added that that was concept exploration, rather than defining requirements and how they were going to fit onto a platform. "The real program, in terms of what Comanche is today, goes back to 1991," he said. "That's when the LHX became the Comanche program."

Birmingham noted there were significant outside reviews of the program more favorable than GAO's.

The OSD's Tri Service Assessment, which examined systems engineering, software and assessments by outside industry consultants, had turned up certain systems engineering and leadership problems, but stressed the overall project was quite vigorous.

Moreover, it said, the chopper was far from being outdated - an assessment Birmingham attributed to critics' misunderstanding of its role.

A look to the future

Although conceptualized during the Cold War, Comanche, Birmingham said, "is very, very futuristic in terms of how we're going to fight aircraft with a network-centric, and information-age capability. The Army has done a pretty good job of keeping the requirement of the Comanche very, very relevant to the future."

Ditto, Birmingham said, for the helicopter's capacity to engage enemies in asymmetric warfare. Comanche "absolutely," has contributions to make in this realm, he said.

As to the Comanche's chief domestic "competition," Birmingham was quick to say that many comparisons are deeply flawed.

For example, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have come to the fore lately in Afghanistan. The fixed-wing ultra lights now go beyond simple reconnaissance to perform as light weapons platforms.

But any suggestion that Comanche would support much smaller, far less costly UAVs like Predator is quickly deferred. "It's the other way around," Birmingham said. "UAVs are supplemental, and provide a tremendous capability in terms of an additional sensors to the Comanche."

Noting that UAVs perform multiple tasks and have range of more than 100 miles, Birmingham noted "the problem is that a UAV looks through a straw; it has a very, very small field-of-view."

Birmingham was, however, intrigued at the question of interoperable communications among satellites, helicopters, UAVs, fixed-wing aircraft and ground control stations.

"Here's what we're trying to define right now: What is the common data link? We're looking at a Tactical Common Data Link that Army and DoD aircraft are going to use to do that type of control."

Network-centric warfare

All this, according to Birmingham, dovetails smoothly into the network-centric concept where Army aviation expects the Comanche to take a leadership role. Essentially, with its welter of sensors systems, ruggedized communications gear and equipment packages, Comanche should, in the long term, be able to control UAVs and relay battlefield data across vast distances. This is essential, inasmuch as the craft's communication/navigation gear is probably among its main selling points.

According to Birmingham, the Comanche is better configured than any other helicopter to engage enemies in Afghanistan-type scenarios. "The beauty of Comanche is the reduced footprint it gives you on the battlefield, and the significant reduction in operations and support costs," Birmingham said.

He called the rotorcraft "highly, highly reliable" in prototype form. Yet despite its overall sophistication, it requires just 50 tools to service virtually the entire craft. The turbine power plant, remarkably, needs only six.

For much more complex jobs, there are other components of which no other helicopter can boast: embedded diagnostics.

Birmingham added that most warfighters "won't believe" how efficient and reliable the bird is. He said equipment-related catastrophes like the Desert One operation in the 1970s - when sandstorms disabled helicopters sent to rescue American hostages in the Middle East - were a virtual impossibility.

Birmingham said, as well, that this was the first Army helicopter to garner the highly coveted, premier AVS-33 agility standard.

While recognizing that Black Hawk troop-delivery choppers are slated to keep flying until 2025, he said, "the fact that the Army and the DoD are moving from the Cold War legacy to a network-centric Information Age warfare system is making legacy aircraft obsolete.

"The Kiowa Warrior is our current armed reconnaissance aircraft," he noted. "But it doesn't fit in to Objective Force scenarios; it can't go deep, it doesn't have the legs we need; it doesn't have the navigation/communications package or the ability to carry munitions. It is obsolete by default."

What's more, while current choppers still offer utility, the older aircraft "are very expensive to maintain. The Apache is [more than] $3,500 [per] flight hour; Comanche is about $1,800," he said.

"But the issue really isn't Comanche replacing platforms," Birmingham said. "The platforms are going to become obsolete because of the way we will be fighting future wars." Compared to the alternative - endlessly patching and fitfully "modernizing" older, grayer helicopters for use in the asymmetric environment of the next 15-20 years - Birmingham said the Comanche was "a bargain for the taxpayer."

The Comanche "is the Army future armed reconnaissance aircraft, and it complements the Army and the Objective Force. It's out there to fill a void for Objective Force requirement to fight a network-centric war. We don't have one now."

Birmingham said the Comanche's Initial Operational Capability (IOC) should be reached in September 2009.

"I think the Comanche program is going to continue to be criticized," Birmingham conceded. "And I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.

"I'm more concerned about folks who are criticizing the program for the wrong reasons; because they don't understand how the Army and Army aviation is going to fight in the Objective Force. Once they understand network-centric warfare and Information Age warfare, everyone will become a believer in the Comanche, and why we're putting this capability out there."

At a late April meeting of the joint staff, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said expenditures for a number of service programs - including the F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft, the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and the RAH-66 - would be reviewed in light of fiscal year 2003 defense appropriations.

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