On October 23, 2004, the United States Army announced its decision to cancel the Comanche helicopter program. At the time, this decision was criticized by many. The Comanche was a state-of-the-art platform, fully digital, stealthy and able to act as both an attack helicopter and a key node in the joint reconnaissance network. The Comanche seemed to embody all the important features demanded of a transformational weapons system.
In fact, the decision saved Army aviation. The Army was facing the obsolescence of virtually its entire air fleet. Moreover, the demands of the global war on terrorism were using up the remaining life of the existing helicopter force at an alarming rate. Many of the helicopters in Iraq lacked adequate countermeasures against insurgent surface-to-air missiles. A crisis was looming.
The cancellation of the Comanche provided the Army with some $14 billion with which to repair and modernize its fleet of helicopters. Some of the money not spent on Comanche will be used to refurbish the Army’s current aerial fleet. The rest of the money will be spent on new helicopters to replace aging airframes.
As part of its program of acquiring new capabilities, the Army currently is planning to buy both a new armed reconnaissance helicopter (ARH) to replace the venerable OH-58D Kiowa Warriors and a new light utility helicopter (LUH) primarily to replace the aging Vietnam-era UH-1 Hueys. In both instances, the Army is looking to acquire a modified off-the-shelf platform, thereby avoiding the additional costs associated with a new military-unique design and gaining the supportability advantage of an installed maintenance base. Both vehicles will deploy advanced avionics, sensors and communications. By specifying an existing airframe the Army will be able to buy more than twice the number of ARHs/LUHs as the Comanches it had planned to acquire (in addition to thousands of new helicopters of other types).
The Marine Corps is pursuing a similar strategy. They have a program to develop the AH-1Z Super Cobra, an upgraded version of the AH-1W attack helicopter, and the UH-1N light utility helicopter. Using a proven airframe, one in wide commercial use, will save money. In addition, the Marine Corps will reduce its logistics burden because of the commonalities between the AH-1Z and UH-1N. So far, this program is on track and meeting performance milestones.
The ARH and LUH procurements are a major part of the Army’s effort to save its aviation fleet. So long as a proven design is selected, the ARH and LUH procurements should provide a significant improvement in capabilities and supportability on a shorter timeline than is usually the case with new helicopter procurements.
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