February 25, 2004 | WebMemo on National Security and Defense
On February 23, the U.S. Army announced its intent to cancel the $39 billion Comanche helicopter acquisition program. The Army undoubtedly needs modern equipment to meet the military challenges of the 21st century and the service had already invested decades of research and almost $7 billion in developmental costs. Still, killing Comanche was the right choice. Comanche simply does not fit into the Army's present or future. For now, the Army would do well to reinvest money budgeted for Comanche to ensure that the current generation of helicopters remain effective and reliable.
A program like Comanche, originally proposed in the 1980s, made sense when we needed helicopters that could fight their way through the thick of Soviet air defenses. That is not the situation the Army faces today. The Army already has a fleet of capable combat and support helicopters, as well as more joint (Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Force) assets, with which to fight future enemies far less fearsome than the Warsaw Pact.
To field Comanche, at $53 million per aircraft, would have presented the Army a Hobson's choice, strangling funds for the maintenance and procurement of the current generation of aircraft or other critical programs in order to buy an extremely expensive platform that provides more capability than the Army really requires right now.
There are better alternatives for the funds envisioned for the Comanche program. What the Army should do is to focus procurement effort on capabilities that are truly transformational, that provide the right set of capabilities to accomplish the military missions of this century, not the last one. The centerpiece of defense transformation is linking disparate systems into a "system-of-systems" that integrates sensors, decision-makers, and operational units. This network-centric approach to military campaigns will place an even greater emphasis on joint operations, the coordinated use of land, sea, and air forces. What matters most in joint warfare is the overall performance of the system-of-systems, not individual platforms. The Army should focus its research effort on the most promising new technologies that contribute to creating a 21st century network-centric force.
That said, even in network-centric warfare, platforms (like helicopters) still matter. In war, systems don't always perform as expected. Sometimes they let you down and you have to depend on platforms. In close combat, robust platforms still matter -- they are a hedge against the inevitable friction of battle that drags against any system in wartime. Thus, while Army transformation efforts must fully embrace a network-centric approach, they must also maintain an appropriate focus on dependable and survivable platforms. Therefore, some of the dollars planned for the Comanche program should be reinvested in the Army's current generation of helicopters so that these systems remain effective and reliable until truly new transformational capabilities can be added to the force.
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.