The Pentagon announced today that is canceling the RAH-66 Comanche program after 20 years of development. This helicopter was conceived as a fast stealthy armed reconnaissance aircraft. With the long approval and development time that new projects now require, the Pentagon has once again found itself with a weapon system it doesn’t need. The Comanche became obsolete with the advent of effective Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in the recon role in recent years. This program is just another in a long list of projects that the Pentagon has been forced to cancel or curtail in the last decade. The Crusader self propelled howitzer system was cancelled in 2002 because its mission of heavy artillery support against massed armored divisions in Europe did not exist anymore. The B-2 Spirit stealth bomber managed to make it to production but was scaled back because its mission of flying in undetected to strike at Soviet ICBM launch sites was no longer necessary. The F-22 Raptor aircraft was originally designed to provide a stealthy high-speed interceptor to dominate the skies. It has all the gadgets on board that money could buy in order to accomplish its single task. This approach has left the military realizing that it has a very expensive one trick pony in the F-22. Boeing is now scrambling to shoehorn the F-22 into more missions that it wasn’t designed for (like attack, bombing, and electronic counter measures) before it gets the budget axe too.
There have been quite a few more high profile projects that have been tossed aside recently as well. This leads me to several questions. Why is there so much time passing between determination of requirements and production? I would think that technology advances in production (a la Boeing 777) would make design and production somewhat faster than in the recent past. Is it all politics? Money? Project scale? Mission creep? Lack of foresight?
It almost seems as if we should abandon these large scale projects in favor of a more wide range of smaller projects. That way production could be increased on those that prove to have a viable mission and cancelled on those that don’t.
Maybe requirements should be less restrictive to leave room for innovation. The Comanche project has already cost the taxpayers $8 billion and will cost another $2 billion in termination fees. $10 billion was an awful lot of cash to spend to get nothing in return.
I am an outsider (a well read outsider) when it comes to the military and aerospace industries so I hope maybe Driko or Toby can help shed some light on how the Pentagon deals with these types of programs.