Annual Savings Five-Year Savings from (Millions of dollars) Cumulative the 1997 Plan 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 Total Budget Authority 3 190 255 397 440 1,285 Outlays 64 200 265 348 416 1,293
The Army fields about 6,000 helicopters, some of which are approaching the end of their 20-year useful service life or have exceeded it. About 2,000 of the helicopters--the OH-58 Kiowa scout helicopters and the AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters--are Vietnam-era aircraft that the Army plans to replace with the RAH-66 Comanche helicopter. The Comanche will fill both the reconnaissance and the attack roles that those two helicopters now perform.
The Comanche program, when it was conceived in 1983, was intended to develop one aircraft that, in two different configurations, could replace not only the Vietnam-era scout and attack helicopters described above but also the UH-1 utility helicopters of the same vintage. The Army originally planned to buy more than 5,000 Comanches of various configurations. The utility version was dropped in 1988, however, because the program had become too costly. Since then, the Comanche program has included only the attack and scout version, and the quantity has been reduced further, from a planned purchase of more than 2,000 aircraft to just under 1,300. The helicopter is still in the development stage, which will continue at least through 2004. As recently as 1992, the Army had planned to start buying Comanches in 1996, but it has since delayed the start of production until 2005.
These changes in the objective and size of the program have caused the cost of each Comanche helicopter --expressed in 1997 dollars--to more than double since the program began, from $11 million in 1985 to $26 million based on the Army's 1996 estimate. Furthermore, the Comanche has become more expensive to acquire than the Army's current generation of attack helicopter, the AH-64 Apache, which is bigger and heavier than the Comanche. That cost increase is significant, particularly in a helicopter whose development was originally justified on the basis of its being inexpensive to purchase, operate, and maintain. Indeed, the Comanche's high cost calls into question the prudence of pursuing this as-yet-undeveloped aircraft instead of continuing to buy existing helicopters such as the Apache or later models of the Kiowa.
Some analysts have questioned the wisdom of continuing the Comanche program. A General Accounting Office (GAO) report published in 1992 noted not only the increase in the cost of buying the Comanche but also the potential for maintenance costs to increase to three times the original estimates. Those factors, plus the risk of additional cost increases as technical issues are resolved, caused GAO to question the Army's underlying rationale for the Comanche program. In addition, the Comanche, which was conceived at the height of the Cold War, will no longer need to counter threats of the same scale or sophistication as those it was designed to thwart. Indeed, the Comanche is now so similar in capability to the Apache--the aircraft it is supposedly designed to complement--that whether it has a unique role to play in Army aviation is unclear. Without a mission that existing Army helicopters cannot perform, it is hard to justify the continued development of an aircraft that is more expensive to acquire than existing helicopters.
Based on these various concerns, this alternative would provide other means for filling the Comanche's role, at reduced cost. It would cancel the RAH-66 program, thereby saving $2.4 billion in budget authority over the next five years. Some added costs, however, would be associated with buying more helicopters of other types. The Army has already purchased enough Apaches to fulfill the attack role assigned to 13 of its 18 divisions. During Operation Desert Storm, Apaches performed their missions without scout helicopters, and this alternative accordingly would provide no replacements for the aging Kiowas currently assigned that role in those divisions. The Army, however, needs to replace the aging Cobras assigned to the attack aviation units of the remaining divisions. Armed scout helicopters, known as Kiowa Warriors, were used effectively in the Persian Gulf and could replace the Cobras still in service. The Congress has supported purchasing those aircraft in the past, and the Army has bought a limited number (406). This alternative would buy 18 armed scout helicopters in 1998 and 24 each year thereafter, leading to a total procurement of 519 by the end of 2005. After taking into account the cost of buying those helicopters and canceling the Comanche, net savings compared with the 1997 plan would total about $1.3 billion in both budget authority and outlays over the 1998-2002 period.
The primary disadvantage of adopting this
alternative would be the loss of the new aviation
technology incorporated in the Comanche. Some
analysts would argue that the threats the Comanche is
likely to face would not demand the very
sophisticated stealth, avionics, and aeronautic
technologies slated for the new helicopter, but others
would support the program as a way to maintain the
U.S. lead in helicopter technology. Some of the
Comanche's new technologies are already being
incorporated into current U.S. helicopters such as the
Apache. Abandoning the RAH-66 program,
however, would mean that the Army would have to
rely on helicopters designed in the 1960s and 1970s
for years to come.