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23 Feb 04. In a dramatic about-face, the Army on Monday canceled its Comanche helicopter program after sinking $8bn and 21 years of effort into producing a new-generation chopper. It is one of the biggest program cancellations in the history of the Army and comes less than two years after the service’s $11 billion Crusader artillery project was dropped after $2 billion was spent.

Army officials said the wars there, which have seen nine US helicopters shot down, emphasised the vulnerability of the expensive Comanches to shoulder-fired missiles and other low-tech weapons.The cancellation is a blow for Boeing, the struggling aerospace giant that was building the Comanche jointly with helicopter specialist Sikorsky, part of United Technologies of the US. The costs to the two companies involved will be softened by the upgradings, such as fully funding the army’s Apache attack helicopters, made entirely by Boeing, and adding 80 more of Sikorsky’s Blackhawk helicopters. (Source: FT)

The Comanche decision reflects a growing realization in the Pentagon that the military has more big-ticket weapons projects in the works than it can afford, even after seeing the Pentagon budget grow by tens of billions of dollars since 2001. And it the reflects the rising popularity of unmanned aircraft, for surveillance as well as attack missions, in recent years. The RAH-66 Comanche helicopter project was launched in 1983 and was eventually to cost $38bn. The Army said it needed a stealthier, more capable armed reconnaissance helicopter to not only collect and distribute battlefield intelligence but also to destroy enemy forces. But the program encountered many setbacks and was restructured six times, most recently in 2002. The latest timetable called for beginning initial low-rate production in 2007, with the first Comanches to be declared combat ready in 2009 and full-rate production to start in 2010. The main contractors for Comanche are Boeing Co. and Sikorsky Aircraft Corp.

Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said in an interview that he believes Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is killing off big-ticket projects that were conceived during the Cold War and that are threatening to squeeze the financial life out of projects more essential to the military’s modernization.

The Comanche, he said, was conceived to meet a valid need but is not crucial to the future. “It was important to the Army but it wasn’t the crown jewel,” he said. “Some would say it was the crown.”Dropping the Comanche is unlikely to stir the kind of controversy sparked by Rumsfeld’s decision in 2002 to kill the Crusader. Army leaders openly opposed that decision and they attempted to enlist support on Capitol Hill to keep the artillery program alive. In the case of the Comanche, the new Army chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, fully supports cancellation, officials said.

Rumsfeld has emphasized leap-ahead technologies like unmanned aircraft. The Predator drone, for example, began as strictly a surveillance aircraft but during the 2001 war in Afghanistan it was armed with Hellfire missiles and used to attack ground vehicles. The Global Hawk unmanned long-range reconnaissance aircraft also saw its wartime debut over Afghanistan. “They (unmanned aircraft) are a favorite of Rumsfeld’s,” Krepinevich said. “And they’re a favorite for a good reason: They’ve performed well.” The contractors for Comanche are Boeing Co. and Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. From the first days of the Bush administration there has been talk of cancelling a number of major aviation projects, including the Marine Corps’ V-22 Osprey hybrid helicopter-airplane and the Air Force’s F/A-22 Raptor fighter jet, but so far the Comanche has been the only casualty.

The White House budget office recently asked the Pentagon to provide independent reviews of the Comanche and the F/A-22, which is much furt

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