In a sign the Pentagon is beginning to feel a budget squeeze, the Army on Monday canceled its Comanche helicopter program, bringing an end to the development of a craft that had been 21 years and $6.9 billion in the making.
The termination, one of the biggest in Army history, contrasts with Pentagon budget battles of two years ago, when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ordered the Army's $11-billion Crusader artillery system canceled despite intense lobbying by senior Army officials to keep it going. This time, the Army itself decided to take the hit.
The Army had little choice, senior officials said. The RAH-66 Comanche, an armed reconnaissance helicopter derided as a Cold War design with little utility in today's battles, was uniquely vulnerable to an argument repeatedly made by Rumsfeld: that bloated, big-ticket projects conceived during another era are putting Pentagon efforts to modernize at risk.
By eliminating the Comanche, the Army frees up billions of dollars to buy more of the helicopters that are being used widely in Iraq and Afghanistan -- UH-60 Black Hawk, AH-64 Apache and CH-47 Chinook helicopters, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, told reporters at the Pentagon. The money also would be spent to upgrade about 1,400 existing helicopters to improve protection against shoulder-launched missiles, as well as for speeding up work on unmanned aerial vehicles, officials said.
"It's critical to the Army now -- as we're at war -- and for the future that the funds that were identified for the Comanche program in the fiscal year 2005 budget, as well as those funds in the future year's defense plan, remain with Army aviation," acting Army Secretary Les Brownlee said, standing beside Schoomaker at a Pentagon news conference.
To date, nine Army helicopters have been shot down in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 32 lives have been lost in those incidents, Army Lt. Gen. Richard A. Cody told reporters.
When the Comanche was conceived in 1983, the Army faced a far different threat. Army officials were eager for a lightweight, stealthy helicopter that would be able to move ahead of large tank formations in a conventional war to gather and distribute intelligence and attack the enemy.
But since then, the Pentagon has developed any number of aircraft that meet those needs -- Black Hawk and Apache helicopters to attack, and unmanned aerial vehicles and satellites for reconnaissance.
Before Monday's cancellation, the Comanche program encountered one technical setback after another. It was overhauled six times as the cost per helicopter more than quadrupled, from $12.1 million per aircraft in the early days to $58.9 million two years ago. It was then that Rumsfeld cut the program in half.
Schoomaker said Monday's decision will free up $14.6 billion that had been designated for Comanche research and procurement through 2011. The money will be used to buy 796 new versions of the Black Hawk, Apache and Chinook helicopters, as well as upgrading choppers already in use.
"It's a big decision, but we know it's the right decision," Schoomaker said. He said the Army also plans to invest more heavily in unmanned aircraft, which have proved their worth in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In terminating the Comanche program, the Army will have to ante up between $450 million and $680 million in cancellation fees to Boeing Co. and Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., the main contractors for the helicopter, Cody said.
"With the Comanche, the Army has made a difficult choice," said Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense think tank. "They have said, what we face now is a situation in which Comanche, a system designed to avoid radar detection, is not applicable to the problem we face in Afghanistan and Iraq. The principal problem we face there is from shoulder-fired missiles, and they are proliferating.... We need to get better at fighting and winning the war we're in right now."
But with the Pentagon budget ballooning -- the procurement budget alone is projected to rise 30% between now and 2009 -- the federal deficit growing steadily larger, and the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan costing more than $4 billion each month, the military services are beginning to feel the pressure.
"Like the other services, the Army is increasingly under pressure from the contradictions in the Bush budget," said Loren Thompson, a military aviation specialist at the Lexington Institute think tank. "Things are likely to get tight; the tightness usually hits first in the weapons counts."
With the Pentagon budget up more than $80 billion since 2001, Republican lawmakers are beginning to take a closer look at supporting growing defense spending. Leading Democrats on Capitol Hill have been increasingly vocal on the issue.
In a statement on Monday, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the Comanche cancellation "reflects the difficulty that the services are facing with the cost of modernization requirements now coming to the fore."
From the first days of the Bush administration, there has been talk of canceling a number of major military aviation projects, including the V-22 Osprey hybrid, developed by the Marine Corps, and the Air Force's F/A-22 Raptor. But so far, the Comanche has been the only casualty. Sikorsky officials have said that several of the helicopters are in production at a Bridgeport, Conn., plant that now faces an uncertain future.
The White House budget office recently asked the Pentagon to provide independent reviews of the Comanche and the F/A-22.
"There's an opportunity here," said Krepinevich. "Transformation is not only a matter of what you buy, it's what you stop buying.
"The question is, what are the other services doing? They have budget problems too. It's very difficult to see how they'll be able to afford everything that's on the books, especially if, as expected, there starts to be downward pressure on the defense budget. This could be a harbinger of things to come."