Comanche contractors will see funding hikes in other programs

The Army announced Monday that it was canceling its RAH-66 Comanche helicopter program in favor of refurbishing its existing fleet of aviation assets and buying more of what is already being produced. Under that scenario, the Comanche's prime contractors -- Chicago-based Boeing Co. and Sikorsky Aircraft of Stratford, Conn. -- will still see some of the $14.6 billion in Comanche funding that now will be shifted to pay for other helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles, fixed-wing aircraft and other assets, according to Pentagon officials.

The Army's plans to field the Comanche as a replacement for its older scout, attack and utility choppers dates from the Cold-War era. The service had originally planned to buy 1,207 Comanche helicopters, but the program was scaled back to roughly 650 aircraft in 2002.

Of the $39 billion planned for the Comanche program, the Army has invested $6.9 billion to date in research and development. But while canceling the contract could cost the Army between $450 million and $680 million in termination costs, the $14.6 billion in savings through fiscal 2011 -- including $1.2 billion already requested in the president's fiscal 2005 budget proposal -- will be used to buy 796 new aircraft and refurbish 1,400 existing aviation assets, according to Acting Army Secretary Les Brownlee.

Connecticut lawmakers railed against the Army's announcement Monday, although some of the planned funding shifts could benefit Sikorsky, as well as Boeing's Philadelphia helicopter plant. But Arizona is probably the biggest winner under the Army's revised plan to purchase 284 Apache Longbow AH-64D Block III helicopters.

Brownlee said during a Pentagon news conference Monday that the Longbow is every bit as capable as the Comanche, although it lacks that helicopter's stealth capabilities. The Longbow is manufactured at Boeing's Mesa, Ariz., facility, though some of the work is performed at the company's Philadelphia plant.

Aircraft enginemaker Honeywell International Inc., based in Tempe, Ariz., will also benefit from the Army's new plan, which calls for the conversion of 19 CH-47D Chinook helicopters and the purchase of 20 new Chinooks. Honeywell had teamed with Rolls-Royce North America to design the Comanche's engine.

In addition, the Army plans to buy 303 new reconnaissance helicopters, and congressional sources say Army officials are eyeing the McDonnell-Douglas AH-6 "Little Bird" special operations helicopter, also built at Boeing's Mesa facility.

Connecticut-based Sikorsky is probably the biggest loser in the Army's decision to cancel the Comanche, although the revised plan would include the purchase of 80 Blackhawk UH-60 helicopters over the next several years.

But Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said Monday she is not convinced the Army has a salient plan for replacing the Comanche. "Are they going back to the drawing board?" she asked during a telephone interview with CongressDaily. "What's the cost of that going to be?"

DeLauro said she is also concerned that the new plan could open the door to competition with European manufacturers and potentially rob the U.S. helicopter industrial base of precious Pentagon procurement dollars.

In a joint statement Monday, Connecticut Democratic Sens. Christopher Dodd and Joseph Lieberman vowed to save the Comanche program. "It simply doesn't make sense to pull the plug on the Comanche," Dodd said in the statement. "Obviously, this will not be an easy fight, but I intend to work with other members of the Connecticut congressional delegation to seek to retain the Comanche as part of our military arsenal."

Other planned buys include aviation munitions and new fixed-wing cargo aircraft. The Army will also invest in research and development for the Joint Multi-role Helicopter and joint airlift aircraft, and will devote roughly $300 million to unmanned aerial vehicle development.

Brownlee said the Army plans to send Congress a budget amendment to shift the $1.2 billion requested for Comanche in the fiscal 2005 budget request to other programs.

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