Thursday, December 5, 2013
By MARJORIE CENSER The Washington Post
WASHINGTON - The Army's Comanche helicopter was envisioned as "the quarterback of the digital battlefield," a technologically superior aircraft that could hide from enemies, operate at night and in bad weather, and travel farther than any other helicopter.
A study condemning the Army’s expenditure of more than $32 billion for equipment never built singles out the Comanche helicopter, shown in this 2001 illustration of the prototype. The study is the latest sign the military is radically changing its approach, favoring the tried-and-true over ambitious technological innovation.
Bloomberg News photo by Richard Sheinwald
Gen. Richard Cody, a former vice chief of staff of the Army, called it the "most flexible, most agile" aircraft the country had ever produced.
In 2000, it ranked as the most important planned buy for the Army. Four years later, the program -- which had consumed close to 20 years of work and nearly $6 billion -- was abruptly shuttered.
It is one of 22 major Army weapons programs that have been canceled since 1995, ringing up a price tag of more than $32 billion for equipment that was never built. A new study commissioned by the Army, though not publicly released, condemns the service's efforts as "unacceptable."
The study is the latest indication that the Pentagon -- and the defense industry, in turn -- is undergoing a seismic shift in its approach to new programs.
As pressures mounted in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military retreated from its ambitions of building multibillion-dollar, technologically superior systems. Instead, it was forced to make better use of tried-and-true equipment.
For almost a decade, the Defense Department saw its budgets boom -- but didn't make the kind of technological strides that seemed possible.
"Since 9/11, a near doubling of the Pentagon's modernization accounts -- more than $700 billion over 10 years in new spending on procurement, research and development -- has resulted in relatively modest gains in actual military capability," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in an address last week.
That outcome, he said, is both "vexing and disturbing."
Gone are the days of "no-questions-asked funding requests," he said. The Defense Department must make do with less. It is focusing on fixing up older equipment and taking a more measured approach to weapon development.
The shifting strategies and a shrinking defense budget have triggered the biggest restructuring in the defense industry since the end of the Cold War.
Contractors big and small have been rethinking their portfolios and buying and selling accordingly. Northrop Grumman, for instance, spun off its shipbuilding unit. And Robert Stevens, chief executive of Lockheed Martin, last week said the company's workforce, which has shrunk by 20,000 since 2009, "may well continue to decline."
In recent years, the Pentagon has killed off some of its most heralded -- and most pricey -- weapons programs, and many of those that remain are not certain to move forward.
"We've had 10 years of wars. We've had a fair amount of money available to the department," said Thomas Hawley, deputy undersecretary of the Army. "It's just time now, with at least one war winding down and another we hope will be winding down and funding definitely coming down, to take a pause, relook where we are and go forward from there in a thoughtful way."
IRAQ, AFGHANISTAN CHANGE NEEDS
As the Army began developing the Comanche helicopter in the 1980s, it was riding high on the success of what are known as the "big five" major weapons systems: the Abrams tank, Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, Apache attack helicopter, Black Hawk utility helicopter and Patriot missile system, all of which are used today.
The Army, launching the Comanche with the Cold War in mind, imagined a new kind of helicopter able to stealthily detect well-equipped enemies. After a complex acquisition process, the military commissioned the team of Boeing and Sikorsky to build the Comanche. The Army eventually settled on buying 650 Comanches for about $39 billion.
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