Article Published in the Army Times
The heart and soul of the Army’s plan to transform itself into a 21st Century force, its so-called Objective Force, is the Future Combat System (FCS). As described in Army publications and briefings, the FCS is not a single platform or weapons system but a system or systems. It is likely to involve both ground and air-breathing systems, connected through a sophisticated sensor and communications net. While future platforms will inevitably employ advanced weapons systems, the real punch of the FCS, and hence the Objective Force, will come from its ability to create a full-spectrum capability based on the seamless operation of all its platforms and weapons.
Current plans call for an initial decision on the elements of the FCS to be made in 2008, based on a technology program that is focused on identifying key capabilities no later than 2003. There is enormous uncertainty associated with the Army transformation program. It is possible that the technology thrust will not yield any revolutionary capabilities. Moreover, even with a rapid translation of laboratory science into fielded weapons systems; it will take several decades for the Army to complete the conversion to the Objective Force.
Yet, what may well be the first installment of the Objective Force is rapidly moving through DoD’s acquisition system on track for an initial deployment in 2006, two years before the planned introduction of the FCS. This is the RAH-66 Comanche. After more than twenty years in development, the Comanche is nearing readiness for its debut as a key component of a 21st century Army. The RAH-66 is now in engineering and manufacturing development (EMD). In this phase of the acquisition program some twenty-one Comanches will be built for testing and operational evaluation.
The Comanche embodies many of the features the Army believes will be essential to the FCS. It incorporates low-observable technologies, making it less detectable by radar, infrared, acoustic and visual sensors. An advanced avionics suite will enhance the Comanche’s agility and add to its survivability and flexibility.
Most important, the Boeing team has built into the Comanche the advanced C4ISR capability that will make it an indispensable node in a future Objective Force architecture. The Comanche carries with it a suite of advanced onboard sensors and sensor management technology that, together with access to the network of sensors across the entire battlefield, allows for unparalleled situational awareness. This awareness, in turn, will enable the Comanche to operate either as a stealthy reconnaissance system or as a highly lethal attack platform. The Comanche may well be the first multi-role manned air system deployed by any of the services that exploits the revolution in information technologies.
The Comanche has generally been described as a reconnaissance platform, complementing the Apache attack helicopter. However, the combination of advanced onboard sensors, connectivity, and flexibility in fuel and armaments configuration, makes it a potentially powerful attack helicopter in its own right. Although it may not carry as heavy a load as the Apache, the advantages of stealth, mobility and situational awareness could allow enable the Comanche to equal the combat power of the Apache. Moreover, it could prove to be the more capable in the complex environments of many small-scale contingencies and peacekeeping operations.
With this in mind, the Army is giving serious consideration to making the Comanche its primary attack platform. The Army recognizes the need not merely to recapitalize an aging helicopter fleet but Extending the mission envelope for Comanche could permit the Army to reduce the total size of its helicopter fleet. In addition, operations and maintenance costs could be lessened by the eventual reduction in the number of different platforms in the fleet.
The road to the transformed U.S. military, including to the Army’s Objective Force, is an uncertain path. That uncertainty can be lessened to the extent that the Comanche program is successful. For that to happen, everyone will have to do his part. The team building the helicopter will have to meet exacting performance standards. The Army will have to revamp its plan for aviation modernization. The department of defense will have to ensure that the success of the Comanche EMD phase will result in the acquisition of this potentially revolutionary platform.
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