Oh, the glorious years of “defending spending glut” of the 1980s.
With a massive budget allocation, the US Army took the opportunity to develop a new type of helicopter that could scout dangerous enemy territories and, simultaneously, protect itself from attacks by being equipped with the necessary armaments. Thus, in the quest for building this “could do more with less” platform, they’ve launched the Light Helicopter Experimental (LHX) program.
The program also sought to replace the Army’s aging Bell OH-58 Kiowa and Hughes OH-6 Cayuse with more survivable capabilities that could evade its air- and surface-to-air attacks.
Many manufacturers submitted their designs, but only the futuristic RAH-66 (Reconnaissance Attack Helicopter) by Boeing-Sikorsky made it through. They were awarded a whopping initial budget of about $3 billion in 1991 and were expected to deliver six prototypes, of which only two were produced.
In keeping with the Army tradition of naming helicopters for Native American tribes, the “Comanche” conformed to the design requirements of the Army to carry out both light attack and scouting roles, all while ensuring that it could evade and survive counterattacks. Its overall concept included sneaking undetected into enemy airspace and locating ground targets that could either be destroyed using its onboard weapons or neutralized using a more powerful helicopter like the AH-64 Apache, artillery, or close air support like the A-10 Thunderbolt II. The Comanche would be a set of electronic eyes data linked to other air and ground forces in real-time.
Since most of its missions involve extensive loitering near or past the front lines, exposing it to air and ground attack, the RAH-66 needed to be sneakier and quieter than its predecessor, there were a variety of methods employed to make the Comanche “stealthy” in the sense of the word in the 1980s.
This groundbreaking technology would eventually flourish on contemporary fixed-wing aircraft today like the Air Force’s F-35 Lightning. But at that time, stealth tech used in the RAH-66 , piqued the interest of the Army.
“To ensure decisive victory and a minimum loss of American lives, our fighting men and women must be equipped with state-of-the-art weapons that will give them an overwhelming advantage. The Comanche helicopters will provide the United States Army with that kind of advantage,” stated in its promotional film, circa late 1990 to early 2000s.
Check out the Comanche Promotional video below.
Among its many features, the Comanche promised a unique tail rotor design. Instead of the standard exposed tail rotor, the Comanche used a fully enclosed deducted fan, reducing drag in level flight and making it quieter and more maneuverable. The hot engine exhaust which gives infrared missiles something to track in flight was ducted into the tail rotor to be dispersed and cooled. This would not make it invulnerable to heat-seeking missiles but would greatly reduce the range at which the missile seeker could detect and track it.
The shape of the fuselage was also optimized to reduce the helicopter’s radar signature by deflecting signal energy away from the Comanche rather than reflecting it back to the tracking radar’s receiver. Again, this wouldn’t make the aircraft invisible to radar but reduce the range at which it could be detected. The problem with making helicopters stealthy is that their rotor blades are very reflective of radar energy, on a radar screen they appear as a distinctive disk.
For its tank, though it is limited to about 1,140 liters, optional tanks could be installed—one in both internal weapons bays and another on external pylons, depending on the mission requirement. During testing, the Comanche was able to loiter over combat airspace for up to three hours, after which they could land in remote areas and refuel via truck rather than wasting time and fuel returning to base.
Technical Specifications as posted by Boeing:
- Classification: armed reconnaissance helicopter
- Length: 42’10”
- Weight: approx. 5.3 t. (4,800 kg)
- Dash speed: 201 mph
- Cruising speed: 190 mph
- Max range: up to 1,449 miles
- Power: Two 1,432-shaft-horsepower T800-LHTEC-801 turboshaft engines
- Rotor system: Five-bladed bearingless main rotor and FANTAIL anti-torque system
- Armament: Stowable three-barrel 20 mm Gatling gun
- Accommodation: 2 crew
A Billion-dollar Waste
After receiving the initial budget in late 1992, engineers of Boeing-Sikorsky began busting their asses to construct the first two Comanche prototypes. However, the program hit a massive setback in late 1994 when the Army reduced its initial order from 1200 units to less than 700. The move was purportedly made to compensate for the cost of increased salaries within the branch. Aside from this, the need for a large Cold War-sized army became uncertain after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had kickstarted the program in the first place. In the Peace Dividend that followed, the US massively cut both the size of its military but also new weapons programs. It did not only affect the LHX program.
Nonetheless, the first prototype was presented in the spring of 1995, after which it was transferred to south Florida for intensive ground and flight testing. As a result, the first RAH-66 had its maiden flight on January 4, 1996, while the second prototype encountered numerous issues with its software and airframe, delaying its test flight later that year.
Over the next eight years, both helicopters received significant upgrades and modifications, including powerful engines, more advanced avionics, and state-of-the-art night vision systems. But as these upgrades happened, the more features it had, the more expensive a unit became, leaving the Army increasingly uninterested. Plus, the Comanche is wearing too many hats—becoming a jack-of-all-trades that seems forced to carry too many functionalities. Not to mention the “requirement creep” was getting out of hand.
After the 9/11 attacks, the budget for the program kept decreasing, cutting the unit order again. According to projections, if the Army did pursue the procurement of 650 Comanches, the total development and procurement costs would be *drum roll please* roughly $27 billion ($45 billion in 2022). It was just too much.
So, despite all the labor and money it burned, the Comanche program was abruptly terminated in early 2004. Of course, they paid a hefty cancelation fee, but it’s barely a scratch compared to the projected total spending had they committed to to mass production of the Comanche.
The Government Accountability Office later reported in 2008 that “the program’s costs could no longer be justified.” Meanwhile, aviation author James W. Williams also explained in his 2005 book that “the long delay in fielding the Comanche was both symptom and cause of other flaws in the acquisition system, that finally proved fatal.”
“The story of the Comanche, thus, offers useful insight into the Army’s experience through this era,” Williams added. Like the ill-fate of AH-56 Cheyenne 30 years earlier, the RAH-66 “fell victim to changing demands of the operational environment.”
Both prototypes are displayed in the Army’s Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker, Alabama.
The failed development of Comanche helicopters may be an unfortunate case. Nonetheless, if trial-and-error never occurred, if every weapon system developed had to be a sure thing from the first drawing, there wouldn’t be any new weapons. As it turns out, you really just can’t know if a new weapon or aircraft will work until you build it, take into the field and try it out.
The Comanche never really got that chance, it was an example of a promising design that was canceled at the end of the Cold War when the US decided(unilaterally) that it would never again have to fight a large war. Of course, that proved to be wrong after 9/11 when the US entered into a 20-year conflict that spanned the entire globe. In the War on Terror, the Comanche might have made the same kind of outstanding reputation for itself that the A-10 Thunderbolt did. which was itself considered an “obsolete” relic of the Cold War.