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Project on Government Oversight




Fighting with Failures Series: Case Studies of How the Pentagon Buys Weapons - RAH-66 Comanche Helicopter

January 22, 2004 


The RAH-66 Comanche is a twin-engine, two-pilot, stealthy, light attack and armed reconnaissance helicopter being developed by Boeing/Sikorsky for the U.S. Army. It will replace the OH-58 Kiowa and AH-1 Cobra helicopters, and assist AH-64 Apache attack helicopters in locating targets at night, in adverse weather, and on battlefields obscured by smoke and dust. Although conceived in 1983, the Comanche is not expected to become operational until late 2009 - 26 years later. Initial Comanche requirements called for a small, lightweight, high performance reconnaissance and attack aircraft. However, to incorporate all these features into a single aircraft, weight had to be added and new technologies had to be developed because they were either immature or still conceptual in nature.

As a result, throughout its history, the Comanche program office and contractor, have suffered from poor performance. In its June 2001 report - the most recent study of the program - the General Accounting Office concluded that the program "continues to face significant cost, scheduling, and performance risks."

Short Cuts on the Way to Acquisition:

  • When the Comanche was first conceived in 1983, the Army planned to purchase 5,023 of the helicopters at a cost of $12.1 million a copy. However, testing schedule delays and increasing development costs have scaled down the planned Comanche buy to 650 aircraft and driven the per-unit acquisition cost to $58.9 million dollars. This increasing cost is noteworthy because the Comanche's development was originally justified on the basis that it would be inexpensive to purchase, maintain, and operate.

  • Historically, the Comanche program has experienced dogged funding problems, changing requirements, and technology challenges. Initially, the Army estimated that development of the Comanche would cost $3.6 billion and last 8 years. However, problems in technology development and testing have caused the program's estimated development cost to balloon to $12.2 billion, and by latest estimates, the development phase will last 26 years. Congressionally-mandated cost caps caused the budget-busting program to undergo its fifth major restructuring in September 2001. In October 2002, the Department of Defense under secretary for acquisition approved the restructuring that added an estimated $4 billion to the cost of the Comanche's engineering and manufacturing development phase.

  • Most testing involving integration of the complete Mission Equipment Package, which incorporates a radar, infrared, and image-intensified television sensors for night flying and target acquisition, will not take place until the end of the development phase, leaving little time to correct unforeseen problems that this new technology may present before initial low rate production.

  • An upcoming low-rate production decision scheduled for 2007 will be based mostly on developmental testing, as opposed to operational testing using fighting men and women placed in realistic battle conditions.


  • The Comanche's contractor and the Army admit that the Comanche program will always struggle with weight issues. Some of the concerns over weight growth during development have recently been temporarily allayed by an increase in shaft horsepower. However, this increase in power, while allowing the aircraft to reach the required vertical climb rate of 500 feet per minute, will reduce engine life from 3,400 to 2,800 hours. There is little or no margin remaining for additional weight growth or engine power.

  • While testing of the aircraft's stealthy antenna systems have generally met technical requirements, they have failed to meet expectations when tested under some real-world situations.

  • Technical challenges remain for software development, integration of mission equipment, radar cross section, infrared signatures, and radar performance.

  • The Comanche's radar is required to achieve an 80 percent probability rate of detection of moving targets. Recent testing showed the Comanche's radar system could only detect 49 percent of moving targets, far short of operational requirements.

  • Testing of the Comanche prototype has demonstrated a number of undesirable flight handling characteristic, including vibration, buffeting and directional stability. Vibrations caused by buffeting can interfere with weapon targeting and cause structural fatigue to the tail.

  • Total Number of Aircraft: 650; Total Program Cost: $38.3 billion; Average Acquisition Unit Cost: $58.9 million

POGO's Fighting with Failures Series documents Pentagon shortcuts in testing and operational requirements that have resulted in weapons that do not work, that waste taxpayer dollars, or that are not suitable for combat.

Sources: Fiscal Year 2002 Annual Report, Director, Operational Test & Evaluation, February 2003; Best Practices: Better Matching of Needs and Resources Will Lead to Better Weapon Systems Outcomes, GAO-01-288, March 2001; Selected Acquisition Reports, September, 2003; Army Aviaition: The RAH-66 Comanche Helicopter Issue, Congressional Research Service, January 9, 2002; Acquisition Management of the RAH-66 Comanche, Department of Defense Inspector General, D-2003-087, May 12, 2003.


Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO's investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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