In terms of modern warfare, “stealth” is a word that instantly grabs both the layperson and historian with images of aircraft that can seemingly attack anywhere in the world and disappear without a trace; an example of both American technological superiority and the changing face of combat. Aircraft like the the SR-71 Blackbird, the F-117 Nighthawk, or the F-22 Raptor have become widely know but most still don’t know about another stealth project in development for several years. Instead of another airplane, the RAH-66 Comanche was an attack helicopter similar to the AH-64 Apache, but designed for stealth.
Due to the helicopter’s sleek and futuristic design, it has been used Comanches could be seen in the film Hulk, while video games such as Thunderstrike: Operation Phoenix and Frontlines: Fuel of War feature the helicopter in some form. Even the Tom Clancy novel Debt of Honor features the U.S. using Comanches in their war against Japan to assassinate ultranationalist leaders and destroying AWACS aircraft. But why have so few actually even heard of the Comanche?
The Comanche’s origins date back to 1982, when the Light Helicopter Experimental Program began. The goal of the program was for the U.S. Army to find a replacement for some of its helicopters which had seen action in the Vietnam War, such as the UH-1 Iroquois or the AH-1 Cobra.
Six years later in 1988, the Army requested proposals from two teams: Boeing-Sikorsky and Bell-McDonnell Douglas. In 1991, the Army awarded the contract to Boeing-Sikorsky, and later asked for two prototypes to be used in a demonstration and evaluation phase. It was at this time the project, which began as Light Helicopter Experimental and then Light Helicopter, was designated by the Army as RAH-66 Comanche.
Only two prototypes were ever built, and made their maiden flight on April 1, 1996.
In terms of armaments, the Comanche would have included a three-barrel 20mm gatling gun, and could carry either six AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles or twelve AIM-92 Stinger air-to-air missiles. Had it seen combat, the Comanche would have been used in a combined scout-attack role. The Comanche’s stealth abilities would have allowed the helicopter to sneakily observe and relay battlefield information, as well as to designate targets for Apache attack helicopters. However, the Comanche’s armaments would have also allowed it to engage both ground and air targets on its own.
To keep hidden, the Comanche’s smooth but sharp surfaces helped reduce the radar cross-section while the airframe was coated in radar-absorbent material, and the entire helicopter was coated in infrared-suppressant paint. Instead of being carried on the outside, the Comanche’s weapons would be store internally and extend outside only if they were in use, similar to the F-22 Raptor.
The helicopter’s engines were specially designed to immensely reduce the Comanche’s noise signature, also gave the Comanche a ferry range of about 1,200 nautical miles, allowing it to cross oceans if need be. If stealth wasn’t a priority, then wings could be added to each side of the Comanche for an increased weapons payload.
However, the costs of the Comanche program rose steadily in 1991. At first the Army planned to purchase 5,023 helicopters at first, before cutting that order to 1,213, and again to 650. The cost per-Comanche also rose from $12.1 million to $58.9 million, which was $38.9 million more than the AH-64D Apache Longbow which the Comanche was intended to designate targets for.
Despite the long development process and almost $7 billion spent, the Comanche helicopter never moved past the prototype stage before it was finally cancelled by the Army in 2004. The two prototype Comanches can now be seen at the U.S. Army Aviation Museum in Rucker, Alabama.
The length of development itself was even a factor in the program’s failure, as the Comanche ultimately became obsolete before it would have even had a chance to see action on the battlefield, and getting the Comanche off of the drawing board alone took nine years.
In 2011, Brig. Gen. Anthony Crutchfield told National Defense Magazine:
“The difficulties with new helicopter programs in the past have been that technology, as well as the needs of the service, evolve during a long, drawn-out process. Inserting new requirements in the middle of the development cycle has led to the failures.”
However, the development of the Comanche was not a total waste.
One of the biggest contributions of the Comanche program was the concept of combining stealth technology with helicopters. This could be seen years later in 2011 during the raid which killed Osama bin Laden, where the U.S. Navy SEALs made use of MH-60 Blackhawk helicopters upgraded with stealth technology. Certain design aspects of the Comanche may have also been carried over into the Japanese OH-1 helicopter, such as the ability to scout out targets for fellow Apaches and AH-1 Super Cobras while hugging the ground and providing battlefield information, although the stealth characteristics were completely avoided.
Even if it never saw combat, the Comanche nonetheless captured the imagine and continues to remain highly influential in both fiction and aircraft development, if nothing else than for an interesting glimpse into what might have been.