Army Aviation: The RAH-66 Comanche Helicopter Issue
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS W eb
Army Aviation: The RAH-66 Comanche
Specialist i n N ational Defense
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and T r ade Division
Although i t h as been a h igh Army p riority, a number o f factors h ave complicated
the R AH-66 Comanche program. S i nce i t s i n cept i on, t h e p rogram has b een rest ruct ured
several times–postponing the i nitial operational capability (IOC) and increasing overall
program costs. In l ate 2002, DoD restructured t he RAH-66 program again, cutting t he
number o f aircraft t o b e p rocured i n h alf. This report will be updated
The R AH-66 Comanche is a n ex t generation armed reconnaissance h elicopter. It i s
t h e fi rst hel i copt er desi gn ed and d evel oped s peci fi cal l y for t hi s m i ssi on. The C om anche
is being designed t o stealthily penetrat e enemy ai rspace and cond u c t r eco nnaissance. It
is to incorporate advanced c o m p u t e rs and communications to play a l eading role i n t he
digital, network centric batt l espace, with enough weaponry t o engage a wide range of
targets. Some call t he Comanche the world’s most sophisticated combat helicopter, with2
more lines of software code than ev en the F/A-22 R ap tor. The C om anche’s p ri m ary rol es
woul d b e t o s e e k o u t enem y forces and d esi gnat e t arget s for t h e AH-64 Apache at t ack
helicopter at night, in adverse weat her, and i n battlefiel ds obscured by s moke and dust..
Originally, t he Army envis i o n e d d eveloping and p rocuring 5,023 Comanches t o
replace the Army’s 1960s-era observation, u tility transport, and attack helicopters (OH-6,
OH-58, UH-1, AH-1). Budget constra i n t s a nd force s tructure modifications caused
significant m odifications to the C omanche program . First, t he utility transport version of
the p latform was can c eled and the p rocu rement objective reduced to 1,292 armed
reconnaissance h elicopter s. Second, the FY1993 budget deferred a production d ecision
until 2006 and t rimmed t he number of prototypes from s ix to three. Third, in December
1 T his report s upercedes CRS Report 96-525 F, Army Aviation: RAH-66 Comanche ,bySteven
R. Bowman. Washington, 1996 (Archive d).
2 V e rnon Loeb. “ Fate of Army Chopper On T he Block.” Washington Post . August 31, 2002. p.2.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
going from t hree to two . Fo urth, i n 1995, the Army restructured t he program t o add 6
“ex perimental operational capability” h elicopters within the reduced budget limits, i n p art
by producing t hem without the armaments suite.
In Apri l 2 000 t h e C om anche p rogram successful l y com p l et ed a seri es of t est s and
was cleared to begi n i t s t w o-year, $3.1 billion Engineering and Manufacturing
Development phase3. Boeing-Sikorsy has built and flown two C omanche p rototypes. The
first p re-production m odel, and t he third C omanche i s b eing built and i s ex p ected to be
flown first in March 2005.4 The l ast p lan was for five p re-production aircraft t o b e built
i n t h i s p h ase and eigh t p roduction aircraft were due for d elivery b y 2004 for i niti a l
operational t es ting and eval uation. A t otal of 14 initial operational capability RAH-66s
was p lanned for delivery at t he en d o f 2006 5 and 1,213 Comanches were t o h ave b een
produced through 2024. On October 21, 2002 it was announced that form er DoD
acquisition chief Pete Aldridge had s igned an acquisition d ecision memorandum (ADM)
gi ving final approval for the l atest restructuring of the R AH-66 program. Under t his n ew
plan, t he total purchase o f C o m anches w ould b e reduced from 1,213 to 650 aircraft.
Seventy t hree aircraft will be produced during Low Rate Ini tial P roduction (LR IP ) i n
different blocks . N i n e E MD aircraft, which will most likel y be used as t rainers, will be
built and d elivered by 2006. The C omanche’s Initial Operating C apability (IOC) will be
achieved i n S eptember 2009, three years l ater than originally planned, and n ine m onths
after t he most recent p lan. The remaining 577 aircraft will be produced under a full rate
production s chedule o f 6 0 aircraft p er year , s tarting i n 2011. The Army h a d w anted to
boost t he production rate t o 9 6 aircraft p er year as part of an effort to cut costs. 6
This restructuring reduces the C oman che’s p roduction phase from $39.3 billion t o
an estimated $26.9 billion. DoD h as agreed to add $3.7 billion t o t he helicopter’s $3 . 2
billion full-scale d evelopment p rogram. A r m y o fficials estimate that the cost o f each
Comanche, adjusted for inflation, will increase b y 3 3 p ercent – to $32.3 million7
Much of the p rogram’s problems h ave b een due to the amount of systems t hat h ave
been developed concurrently. For ex ampl e, the radar, armor, and navigation and
communi cat i o n s ys tems were al l bei ng developed at t he same time. 8 The l at est
restruct uring will reduce t his concurrence by del aying t he fiel ding of certain capabilities
3 “Comanche Cleared to Begi n Engineering and Manufacturing Development.” Defense Daily.
4 Kent Faulk. “Comanche Helicopter On Last Chance T o Fly.” Birmingham News . J uly 1, 2002.
5 T e lephone conversation with J ack Satterfield, Boeing spokesma n; Capaccio, T ony, U.S. Army
T o Make Decision on Helicopter Purchases i n April, Bloomberg News Service , M arch 2, 2000.
6 Neil Baumgardner. “Aldridge Inks Comanche Acqui s ition Decision Memorandum, Numbers
Cut T o 650.” Defense Daily. October 21, 2002.
7 T ony Ca paccio. “Boeing, UT X See Positive Impac t i n Comanche Cut.” Bloomberg.com.
8 Neil Baumga rdner. “Army Ready t o M ove Forward with Coma nche, Progr am Manage r Says.”
Defense Daily. February 28, 2002.
– t he radar s ys tem, a h igh l evel of control of UAVs, full air-to-air engagement with the
turreted gun system , Link 16 dat alink, and s at ellite communications – t o l at er blocks. 9
The p rogram was also res tructured t o f ield a companion UAV for t h e Comanche,
which will be developed with funds intended t o u p g r a d e Comanche itself. More
sophisticated sensors and a b etter power dr ive s ys tem will be sacrifice d in lieu o f t he
UAV development. Comanche officials estimate that about $644 million b etween fiscal
ye a r s 2 004 and 2009 will be spent o n t he Comanche’s UAV instead of the p latfo r m
itsel f. 10 The Army h as ex per i m e n t e d with teaming UAVs and both Apache and
C o m anche for s everal years, i n cl udi ng work wi t h t h e R Q-5A Hunter . 11 It is currently
unclear whether t he Comanche’s compan ion will be an operational UAV, one currently
in development, or one developed s pecifically for t he job.
If there are no further changes, C omanch e p r i m e contractors Boeing and Sikorsky
would build helicopters through 2019.”12 However, the final word on Comanche numbers
has not been spoken. Some note t hat wh ile DoD o rigi nally planned t o p rocure
approx imately 1,100 H-60 helicopters, over 2,500 have been procured t o date. 13 Army
officials claim that 6 5 0 aircraft are t oo few, and t hat t hey require 819 Comanches t o
effectively equip t heir Objective Force wh ich i s hoped t o b e ready b y 2008. Plans call for
fi el di ng det achm ent s o f 1 2 C om an c h e a i r craft t o t he Obj ect i v e Force bri gade-st rengt h
‘units of action,’ accompanied b y eight UAVs.”14
In May 2002, DoD’s Ins p e c t or General (IG) reviewed t he restructured Comanche
program. The IG report called t he restructuring a constructive approach to reducing risk
and improving t h e p r o gr a m . However, t he IG cautioned t hat continued emphasis i s
required t o ensure t hat i ntegration p roblems d o not emerge in the future t hat could result
i n i n creased cost and s chedul e. 15
The Debate over M i ssion and Capabilities
The R AH-66 Comanche is design ed to replace the agi ng AH-1 and OH-58D
helicopters and to augm ent t he AH-64 Apache attack helicopter. C ritics of t he Comanche
program argue that there i s n o n eed for a high ly sophisticated, v ery l ow observable armed
reconnaissance h elicopt er in today’s t hreat environment. They contend t hat C omanche’s
9 Baumga rdner. OpCit. “Aldridge Inks Comanche Acquisition Decision M emorandum.”
10 Erin Winograd. “Army Leaders Adamant T hat 650 Coma nches W on’t M eet Requireme nts.”
Inside the Army. October 28, 2002. p.10.
11 K i m Burge r. “AUSA - Army Eyes Apache to Fill Coma nche Gap.” Jane’s De f e n s e Weekly.
12 Robert Wall. “New Comanche Plan Gets Gr een Light.” Aviation Week & Space Technology.
13 Ron Laurenzo. “Comanche’s Looking Up, But Now Come s T he Crunch.” Defense Week. J une
14 Bur ge r . OpCi t “ AUSA - Ar my Eye s Apa c he t o Fi l l Coma nc he Ga p.”
15 J ames Asker. “Pentagon Inspector: Latest Comanche Development P l a n Reduces Program
Ri s k.” Aviation Week & Space Technology. May 19, 2003.
capabilities and mission requirements were developed i n response t o a Cold War t hreat
environment t hat no l onger ex ists. C ritics also argue that t h e C o m anche’s role and
capabilities are too s imilar t o t h e A p ache’s t o j ustify t he costs of t he helicopter’s
d e v e lopment and production. They would cancel the R AH-66, and u se the s avings to
upgrade the OH-58 aircraft and t h e AH-64D Apache’s Longbow16 target acquisition
capabilities. Others say t hat C omanche’s reduced radar s ignature will do little to make it
more survivable than current helicopters. Th ey note t hat i n Iraq, Army and M arine C orps
helicopters were s hot down o r d amaged by IR-guided missiles, rocket -propelled grenades,
and s mall arms fire, none of which u se radars for t argeting.
Proponents o f t he RAH-66 agree t hat t he C o l d W ar t hreat has d isappeared, but
counter that today’s l ow-intensity regi onal conflicts (such as Kosovo and S omalia) p lace
even greater burdens on Army aviation. U.S. Forces must be more deployable, l ess reliant
on forward b ases, and more versatile than they were during t he C o l d War. Supporters
argu e t hat C omanche s atisfies all t hree cr iteria. Fu rtherm o r e , p r oponents argue that
Comanche makes t he whole force more effec tive and will reduce t he Army’s maintenance
burden. This perspective, proponents argue, i s s upported b y i nitial results from an Army
“Anal ysi s o f Al t ernat i v es.” Thi s st udy com p ared at t ack a n d ai r caval ry squadrons
equipped with AH-64D Longbow s a n d OH-58D Kiowa W arriors t o units composed of
Apaches and C om anches. T he force equi pped with Comanches report edl y d em onst rat ed
better situational aw a ren e s s, survivability and l et hality than the other force. The
Comanche provided better s ensing, l et hality, range, agility, s urvivability, and versatility
than the Kiowa units. C omanche also improved t he effectivenes s of t he Longbow when
the t wo ai rcraft were mix ed in attack uni t s . T he RAH-66's s tealth improved Apach e
Longbow’s survivability when coop erat i v e t ac t i c s , t ech n i q u e s a n d p r o ced u r es were used. 17
Claims of reduced maintenance burdens for t h e Comanche, however, are more
controversial t han are cl aims of its effectivenes s18. P roj ect ed rat i o s o f m ai nt enance m an-
hours t o flight hours h ave v aried over time. The Army hopes t o achiev e a r at i o of 2.6
hours o f m aintenance to every one hour of flight; however, both t he General Accounting
Office and C ongressional Budget Office assert that projected reductions in maintenance
are always optimistic.19 Additionally, s ome s tudies conclude that the C omanche i s m ore
ex pensive t o fly than the Kiowa W arrior ($2,042/hour vs $1,598/hour), but less ex pensive
than the AH-64D, which can cost as much as $3,622/hour to fly. 20
The C om anche’s rol e v i s -a-vi s t h e Apach e i s a continued point of debate. The most
recent reduct i o n i n t he C o m anche program h as i n creased t h e p rom i n ence of t h e AH-64
16 T h e AH-64D Longbow is an upgraded version of the AH-64A which i ncludes a millimeter-
wave Fi re Control Radar target acquisition system and fire-and-forget Hellfire missiles.
17 Er in Winograd. “Initial Results of Alternatives Analys is Show RAH-66 Contributions.” Inside
the Army. J anuary 24, 2000.
18 Claims of improved maintenance r equirements are based on proj ections of advanced processes
and t echnologi e s w hich won’t be prove n until the aircraft i s f ielded. In general, more
technologically sophisticated weapon systems are more difficult to maintain than less
sophisticated weapon systems.
19 CRS Report 96-525, Army Aviation: RAH-66 Comanche .P.3-4.
20 Winograd OpCi t . “Initial Results of Alternatives Analysis Show RAH-66 Contributions.”
Apache. To compensate for fewer Comanches, the Army i s considering improvements t o
Apache, such as a l i fe-ex t ensi o n p rogram or upgrades. Another option m ay be to procure
more Longbow models. 21 S o m e suggest t h at t h e DAB deci si on reaffi rm s t he Apache’s
p l a c e a s the Army’s attack aircraft, and question whether Comanche should pursue
feat ures such as t h e ex t e r n a l f u e l , Arm am e nts and Munitions System, or an air-to-air
Another i ssue i s whether the Army will upgrade Comanche for ‘hea v y’ attack
requirements. In November 2001, Army offi cials s aid t he y were p lanning on a h eavy
vari ant o f t he R AH-66 as a repl acem ent for t h e AH-64D. A s p art o f A rm y t ransform at i o n
pl an, A rm y o ffi ci al s s ai d t hat t he C o m anche coul d p erform t h e at t ack as wel l as t h e arm ed
reconnaissance mission in the future. 23 It is unclear whether t he RAH-66 could m aintain
its stealthy profile while carrying external weapons, however, and some questions whether
Comanche – which currently suffers from weigh t p r o b l e m s – has t he power and fuel
capacity to take on even more weigh t . 24 T h e M ari n e C orps i s ex pect ed t o seek a
replacement for its AH-1Z S uper C obra h elicopters around 2020 and it has been suggested
that a j oint program with the Army i s worth investigating.25
Congr essi onal Acti on
Congress strongly supported the Comanche program by consistently meeting or
ex ceeding DoD’s budget requests f o r f u nding. In its report o n DoD’s FY1996 budget
request, t he House Armed Services Committee reproached both t he Army and t he DoD
for t epid commitment to the p rogram, u rging t hat i t b e given a h igher funding priority and
that full-scale p roduction b y 2004 be gu aranteed. 26
Summary of Recent Comanche R&D Funding in $ Millions
FY04 FY03 FY02 FY01 FY00 FY99 FY98
Do D Request 1,079.3 914.9 787.8 614.0 427.1 367.8 282.0
Appropriatio ns - 914.9 787.8 614.0 467.1 367.8 282.0
In their reports (H.Rept. 108-106, H.R. 1588; and S .Rept. 108-46, S. 1050), House
and S enat e aut hori z ers respect i v el y m at ched t h e Adm i n i s t rat i on’s request for FY04
21 Bur ge r . OpCi t . “ AUSA - Ar my Eye s Apa c he t o Fi l l Coma nc he Ga p.”
22 Winograd. OpCi t . “ Ar my Leaders Adama nt T hat 650 Coma nches W on’t M eet Requireme nts.”
23 Neil Baumgardner. Heavy Comanche t o Replace Apache, Ar my Officials Say. Defense Daily.
Nove mb er 13, 2001.
24 Tony Capaccio. Boeing, United T ech Comanche Copter’s Cost, Weight Hit b y GAO.
Bloomberg.com. M ay 18, 2001.
25 K i m Burge r. “US Army Cuts Comanche Buy.” Jane’s Defense Weekly. October 16, 2002. p.3.
26 U.S. Congress. House of Representatives. Committee on National Security, National Defense
Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1996, 104th Cong., 1st Sess., H.R. 104-131, J une 1, 1995. P.91.
Potenti a l I ssues for Congr ess
In light of the facts and argu ments p resented above, C ongress may wi s h t o p ursue
the following lines of inquiry:
C omanche i s t he Army’s only m ajor aviation d evelopment p rogram. The Comanche
Operational R equirements Document d es cribes the R AH-66's contribution t o future
Army warfigh t i n g missions. It s tates t hat “Aviation capabilities add increas ed
deployability, versatility, l et hality, flex i bility, m o b ility, ex t ended coverage and
sustainment t o M aneuver, Fi re Support, Ai r Defense...”and o ther mission areas. If
the C omanche buy is reduced, what effect will this have on long-term capabilities?
How m uch does C omanche contribute t o com bat power vis-a-vis t he light armored
vehi cl es t h at t h e al s o A rm y w ant s ?
$6.8 billion h as been spent o n t he Comanche through FY03. 27 W ill a purchase o f 650
hel i copt ers b e a s uffi ci ent ret urn on t his R &D investment?
S om e s ay t h at i n recent confl i ct s , fi x ed wi ng ai rcraft have pl ayed a m ore p rom i n ent
role, t han Army attack helicopters. Might improved v ersions of the AC-130 and A-
10, or the S TOVL variant o f t he J o int S trike Fighter, b e m ore effective p roviders of
Close Air Support t o Army ground forces than the R AH-66?
The need for C omanche has been challenged on the bas is that its capabilities do not
differentiate it suffici ently from Apache t o m erit its development. However, turning
this argu ment around, some would assert that the C omanche i s well-suited t o b e t he
Apache’s repl acem ent as t he Arm y’s prem i er at t ack hel i copt er and t he Arm y’s best
platform f o r future growth and developmen t i n t his area. Subsequently, one could
an t i c i pat e a helicopter force s tructure composed solely of heavy lift (CH-47),
battlefiel d utility (UH-60), and scout/attack (RAH-66) ai rcraft. W hat are the m erits
of this force s tructure?
C onsideration of ex port i ssues is part and parcel of any military program. How m uch
might Comanche ex ports contribute t o s us tai n i n g t he aviation i ndustrial b ase and
balancing U .S. t rade? As a new platform, and one less overtly designed for attack
than the Apache, m i ght the C omanche b e o ffered for ex port t o a larger number o f
countries than the AH-64? Conversely, due t o i t s l o w observable features might
Comanche ex ports need to be limited t o our cl osest allies?
27 S e l e cted Acquisition Report ( SAR) Summary T a bles. ( As of J une 30, 2002)De partme nt o f
Defense, OUSD(A&T ) , Sys tems Acquisition. [h ttp:// www.acq.osd.mil/ara/am/ sar/index.html ].