Real Lessons From an Unreal Helicopter

  • Share
  • Read Later

A prototype of the RAH-66 Comanche chopper

The Army’s RAH-66 Comanche helicopter was going to be totally awesome, dude. This super-stealthy light attack helicopter, bristling with advanced sensors and communication gear, was going to perform loads of armed reconnaissance and surveillance missions. Its planned ferry range would even allow it to cross an ocean. The Army wanted to buy 1,200 of them, replacing older helos and bringing Army aviation into the 21st century.

Planning for the Comanche began in 1982, when Ronald Reagan was president, the Cold War was getting hot, the Soviet Union was fighting a war in Afghanistan against the US-supported mujahedeen, and the only man who could steal the USSR’s top-secret, Mach-6, thought-controlled MiG-31 Firefox was Clint Eastwood.

Good times, good times.

In 1988, after a mere six years of planning, the Army issued a Request For Proposal, inviting industry to join in the fun. It only took three more years to award the contract to a combined Boeing-Sikorsky team. By 1991, the program was off and running…ish.

Yes, these Comanches were going to be more awesome than poppin’ and lockin’ in day-glo legwarmers. The Soviets would never see them coming. Of course, the Soviets never got a chance to see Comanche coming because the USSR collapsed right around the time the contract was awarded. There simply were no Soviets left to even look for the thing and we hadn’t even started building them yet.

The other reason the Soviets never saw it coming is because none were ever built – not counting two early prototypes. Even if there had been any Soviets around, there wasn’t anything to see, and not because the thing was so stealthy. Looks like Comanche was less awesome and more bogus than predicted.

Work continued for a couple more years, and the end came in 2004. After spending 22 years and $6.9 billion, the Army cancelled the Comanche program, having received precisely zero helos. Reasons for the cancellation abounded.

For starters, it was not clear the engines (had they been built) would be powerful enough to get a fully loaded, 10,000+ lb Comanche off the ground (had it been built). I’m no helicopter expert, but I can say with reasonable certainty that getting off the ground is an important capability. Unless of course staying on the ground was part of Comanche’s stealth strategy. The world will never know.

Then again, maybe the engines would have been fine – as Dr. James Williams explains in his 2005 book A History Of Army Aviation: “no one could say what the weight really was, because many designs remained unfinished.” So. Many. Questions.

Like its ability to fly, many other aspects of Comanche’s technology were deemed too risky (i.e. immature i.e. hadn’t actually been developed i.e. didn’t exist). According to testing performed in 2003, the design still had serious technical challenges in the areas of “software integration and testing of mission equipment, weight reduction, radar signatures, antenna performance, gun system performance, and aided target detection algorithm performance.” Aside from the electronics, the software, the weapon system, the engines and the overall weight, apparently everything else was fine.

This reliance on imaginary technical components reflects an obese requirement set that had only a passing acquaintance with reality. Comanche’s dependence on unicorn tails and fairy dust also meant delivering even the first few was going to take longer than anyone had planned. A lot longer.

In 1992, the Army was planning to start buying Comanches in 1996. By 1997, they still didn’t have any. In a post dated 9 Oct 2001, Wired Magazine’s Danger Room blog wrote “If the conflict in Afghanistan continues through next year [!], expect the Comanche to make its battlefield debut. When scheduled delivery begins in early 2002, the Comanche will be the most advanced helicopter in the world — and the first to use stealth technology.”

As you may know, the conflict in Afghanistan did indeed continue through that next year – and beyond – but Comanche production was delayed until 2005… then 2006… As for a full fleet of 1,200, well, that was going to take even more time.

So, Comanche was late and didn’t work. That’s bad enough, but it’s not the end of the story. The program was also projected to consume upwards of 40% of the Army’s annual aviation budget, which is not a great way to win friends and influence people. By 2004, the Army decided to spend most of that money on UAV’s instead.

Further contributing to Comanche’s woes (what, there’s more? Yes, there’s more.), the world changed enormously between 1982 and 2004. This stealthy super chopper suddenly had limited relevance to real-world mission needs. Quoting Dr. James Williams again: “the battlefield for which Comanche was designed had grown less probable.” Defense analyst Cindy Williams put it in somewhat more clinical terms, writing “the doctrinal niche that the Comanche occupies is unnecessary.”

That’s fancy talk for “we don’t need ‘em.”

Despite these realities, Boeing spokesman John Morrocco went on record saying, “The Comanche program is on track and schedule,” the day before the program was cancelled. You read that right. He said it was on track the day before it was cancelled.

But the contractors weren’t the only ones surprised by the eminently justified cancellation. In February 2004, the Army’s Lieutenant General Richard Cody, deputy chief of staff, said “If you told me six months ago that I would be standing here saying the Army no longer needs the Comanche helicopter, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

LTG Cody’s honesty is genuinely admirable, both the part where he admits he never saw the cancellation coming and the part where he concedes the Army no longer needed the Comanche. His willingness to say both is a sterling example of military integrity. Would that all leaders – military and civilian alike – spoke with such straightforwardness.

If that was the end of the story, it wouldn’t be much of a story, LTG Cody’s professionalism notwithstanding. There are dozens of similar examples, where the DoD expended decades and billions to (not) deliver a system which wouldn’t work and which was no longer needed.

Yawn. Big deal. Those stories have been done to death, everyone’s heard them, and there’s not much point in rehashing yet another example. But a funny thing happened with Comanche, making it worth a look.

Seven years after the cancellation, in a July 2011 exchange with a journalist from DoDBuzz, Deputy Undersecretary of the Army Thomas Hawley was asked what the Army would do differently on future programs, in light of its “failed Comanche program.”

Mr. Hawley’s reply was so startling, so unexpected, that it put Comanche into an entirely new light. What would the Army do differently on future programs, based on the lessons learned from the failed Comanche program? Mr. Hawley answered: “I wouldn’t say Comanche was necessarily a failure of procurement… Comanche was a good program.”

Wait – what? Man, I did not see that coming.

Allow me to get metaphysical for a moment. Philosophically speaking, what do we mean by the phrase “procurement failure?” This is an important question, as the definition of success and failure will drive future procurement decisions and behaviors – and clearly the DoD isn’t getting out of the acquisition business any time soon.

On the one hand, if our objective is to procure something and we do not procure it, one might call that a failure, perhaps depending on the reasons for the non-procurement. In Comanche’s case, LTG Cody made it clear Comanche was cancelled because the system was unaffordable, unnecessary and — despite more than two decades of effort — incomplete.

But perhaps there is another layer to this puzzle. Maybe Comanche had a different objective, which it did achieve and which would justify Hawley’s positive assessment. Further research reveals an explanation by Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker, who pointed out, “Much of what we’ve gained out of Comanche we can push forward into the tech base for future joint rotor-craft kinds of capabilities.”

Mr. Hawley made a similar point to DoDBuzz when he said “…we didn’t get a completed Comanche, but… I wouldn’t say we didn’t get anything out of it.”

OK, let’s work with that. Perhaps the goal wasn’t to build helicopters after all, but to develop new technologies that could be incorporated into other, hypothetical programs. If that was the purpose of the Comanche program, it may not have been such a failure after all.

Skeptics may object that line of reasoning sounds like calling Comanche a good program because it wasn’t a total failure – an objection even non-skeptics must admit has merit. They might even accuse the Army of setting the bar inappropriately low and argue that taxpayers and warfighters alike deserve higher aspirations when it comes to multi-decade, multi-billion-dollar programs. They wouldn’t be wrong. Nevertheless, let’s follow this line of reasoning and see where it takes us.

Acting Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology Heidi Shyu pressed this case during the aforementioned DoDBuzz discussion, when she said “just because a program is cancelled doesn’t mean all the lessons learned and the technologies we developed doesn’t [sic] spiral into the next generation of the design…”

Indeed, some analysts suggest the helicopter used to ferry troops in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden incorporated some technologies developed under the Comanche program. Of course, Comanche was going to be a recon / attack helo, not a troop transport, so the unnamed mystery aircraft performed a significantly different mission. But if this helo did indeed use Comanche components, clearly Comanche was not a complete, abject, total, 100% failure. The Army got something useful out of it, even if they didn’t get an actual helicopter.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

A fair-minded critic must admit it’s a wonderful thing to make a big glass of cold, tasty lemonade out of a sour lemon, but an equally fair-minded advocate should acknowledge it is scant benefit if the original objective was to grow an orchard. Of apple trees.

Interestingly, the interview in July was not the first time Mr. Hawley praised Comanche. A few months earlier, in May 2011, he foreshadowed the July discussion, calling Comanche “a good helicopter.” It is not clear which aircraft Mr. Hawley had in mind when he called Comanche good, because the program was cancelled before any were built. Most likely he meant Comanche looked good on paper. Or maybe he intended to say it would have been good, if we’d ever built any, or if we could have afforded to buy one, it would have been good. The possibilities are endless.

The unavoidable fact is this: Comanche doesn’t exist, and it never did. But Ms. Shyu is correct that two things come out of a program like Comanche: technologies and lessons. As already stated, tech transfer apparently happened and the resulting helo contributed to a very important mission. That’s good.

As for lessons, the possibility of learning something we can apply to current and future programs is what makes this story worthwhile, even a year after Hawley’s comments. What might we learn from Comanche? Well, if we believe it was a good program and a good helicopter, then the lesson surely is “Follow their example. Do what they did,” because good results merit imitation. Those who see Comanche as something other than good may conclude the moral to the story goes something like this: “Don’t ever, ever, ever follow their example.”

To be clear, what example are we talking about, exactly? In a nutshell, it went something like this:

The Army planned to spend a long time developing Comanche, then spent a lot more time than they’d planned to — so much time that the original threat went away, the “doctrinal niche” became unnecessary, and an entirely new threat emerged which required quite different capabilities.

They intended to spend a lot of money, then spent even more than anyone in 1982 imagined — so much money it was going to consume an unaffordable 40% chunk of their aviation budget.

They continually piled on requirements by the bucketload and relied on technologies which did not actually exist – so many gadgets that the engines couldn’t get the thing off the ground and so many design changes that the ink never really dried on the blueprints.  And then they tried to fix these problems by adding more time and money (see above).

Perhaps the lesson is that military tech programs should exercise design restraint, establish strict budget and schedule constraints, and rely on proven technologies to deliver necessary capabilities on operationally relevant timelines. This formula is much lauded among defense acquisition experts and leaders, but was clearly not implemented by the Comanche team. They spent 22 years doing the opposite.

Yes, Comanche was going to be awesome, but it clearly did not achieve the full level of awesomeness envisioned in 1982. Some interesting and important technologies came out of the program, but no actual helicopters did. The partially designed system turned out to be unnecessary, unaffordable and unworkable. The lessons we chose to draw from this experience will depend entirely on whether we think this constitutes a good outcome, or a bad one.

Lt. Col. Dan Ward is an active duty acquisitions officer in the U.S. Air Force, recently returned from deployment to Kabul, Afghanistan. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force or Department of Defense.