How stealth helicopters were born from this 22-year complete failure of a project

The first RAH-66 prototype during its maiden flight on 4 January 1996

The development of new products can often be an expensive dead-end road to nowhere, littered with extravagant research and development costs and little in the way of positive results. US military defense spending is a painfully good example of this, where even good ideas die because of excruciating development lag times and miles of bureaucratic red tape that can make an item obsolete before it is even finished, or worse- roll out an item that should have been cancelled in the first place (I’m looking at you, F-35).

Although only two were ever built, the RAH-66 Comanche was featured in films, merchandise, video games and much more, the first “stealth helicopter” never saw frontline service, let alone combat.

The concept for the Comanche dates back to 1982, when the Reagan-era was in swing and the gears of the military-industrial complex were warm from being in constant overdrive. Seeing the need for a suitable replacement for AH-1 Cobras and OH-58 Kiowa scout helicopters, the Comanche was to be the F-35 of helicopters before the F-35 ever existed- an advanced, stealth multi-role platform that could utilize an amazing array of weapons and sensors, while backing up the Army’s heavy hitter, the AH-64 Apache.

In response to this need, the Light Helicopter Experimental (LHX) and the RAH-66 were born. Unfortunately for the Comanche, it would be a short life.

The Comanche was supposed to be sexy. With angled lines, a small , stealthy frame made of composite materials, an internal weapons bay reminiscent of the doors of an exotic car and state of the art electronics, the Comanche was like the DeLorean from Back To The Future– with guns, missiles and no capabilities for time travel whatsoever (as far as we know, but we want to believe it could).

Just check out the empty promises in this promo video (The video is 8 minutes long. You can always circle back after you finish reading):

YouTube video

Before the project could even escape the glitzy 1980s, constant management issues, development woes and lack of sync between departments and chronic group-think, where the desire for harmony between in a development group leads to poor decisions.

As the 80s came to an end, so did the threat of the Soviet Union, which crumbled faster than a cookie in milk after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. For the US military, this led to several changes in doctrine and need, putting the already burdened Comanche in an even more precarious condition just as its contract was being awarded.

During the 90s, the Comanche started becoming expensive. Developers began relying on imaginary technologies (that weren’t even past concept phase yet), engines that may or may not have been able to get a fully-loaded Comanche off the ground and a weapons system that just wouldn’t work right.

To paraphrase a DoD document, the Comanche had issues with “software integration and testing of mission equipment, weight reduction, radar signatures, antenna performance, gun system performance, and aided target detection algorithm performance.”  In layman’s terms, it was a great helicopter if you overlooked its electronics, software, weapons systems, engines and weight- but hey, it looked cool.

As the Gulf War drew to a close, the Apache took the title of “America’s Helicopter Superstar” as the Comanche remained stuck in development. In 1992, the Army put in orders for Comanches. By 1996, there still were no Comanches to give, outside of a prototype that had serious issues. The longer it took the Comanche to (literally) get off the ground, the more the US Army realized they didn’t need it anymore.

With over thirteen years and $6.9 billion squandered since they were awarded the contract, the Boeing-Sikorsky team was told that the Comanche would be cancelled. In 2004, then-Lieutenant General Richard Cody -who fired the first shot of the Gulf War from his Apache- said that “If you told me six months ago that I would be standing here saying the Army no longer needs the Comanche helicopter, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

While the Department of Defense is no stranger to big, extravagantly expensive programs that go nowhere, the Comanche took the cake. Despite this, many aspects of the Comanche were later taken and put into systems we still use today.

Many analysts suggest that the super-stealthy modified Blackhawk-type helicopters used on the raid to kill Osama Bin Laden bear more than a passing resemblance to the Comanche’s tail system and profile, along with advanced avionics upgrades for other airframes.

An unidentified US Army stealth helicopter
An unidentified US Army stealth helicopter

However, the most important gift of the RAH-66 Comanche’s 22-year failure is the lesson of what happens when you have a runaway budget, develop an aircraft based on still-hypothetical technologies, burden the program with political bureaucracy and attempt to fix program issues by throwing more time and money at it.

Since we didn’t get the Comanche or a time machine (we still want to believe), at least we learned from that lesson……right?

YouTube video

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