Magazine article Insight on the News

A Rocket's Red Glare: Two Companies Are Shooting It out to Provide the Apache Helicopter with Air-to-Air Missiles. the Only Problem Is the Army Doesn't Want the One Being Developed by the British. (Investigative Report)

Magazine article Insight on the News

A Rocket's Red Glare: Two Companies Are Shooting It out to Provide the Apache Helicopter with Air-to-Air Missiles. the Only Problem Is the Army Doesn't Want the One Being Developed by the British. (Investigative Report)

Article excerpt

The wasplike helicopter rises, maneuvers and fires from a hover, a blur of laser-guided darts streaking toward an enemy aircraft several miles distant. In seconds the target, another chopper, is hit, shot through, a fireball headed for an unscheduled landing -- and the first ever "kill" in a protracted conflict that has caused quiet consternation from Capitol Hill to the Pentagon.

This action didn't occur somewhere along the Albanian border, however. It took place last fall at an Army proving ground in Arizona, where tests were conducted to determine whether a U.S. Apache attack helicopter, teamed with a British-made Starstreak missile, could shoot down a pilotless drone. It did, as the smoldering heap of a surplus Huey attested. But the Army wasn't necessarily impressed, or even pleased, with the outcome. To some insiders, the whole exercise was a waste of time and money, and another case of political meddling in Pentagon procurement.

Sources at the Pentagon tell Insight that whether Starstreak hit its target is beside the point. They say serious questions remain about its capabilities, that answering those questions is draining resources from higher priorities, and that an air-to-air capability for Apaches just isn't required right now. But Congress has ordered that they do the tests, so they'll follow orders, grudgingly.

Starstreak's defenders say the missile, made by the U.K.-based Shorts Missile Systems, is being shortchanged, even blackballed by mossbacks at the Pentagon, where a "cultural bias" favors its likely competitor for any air-to-air mission -- Raytheon's U.S.-made Stinger. Competition between the systems is good for both taxpayers and troops, say supporters of a "shoot-out" between the two. And besides, the Pentagon promised five years ago to give the British system a fair chance ... and a deal is a deal.

Observers say the saga also involves British-U.S. relations, the fairness of Pentagon procurement practices, the pros and cons of different technologies (Starstreak is laser-guided; Stinger is a heat-seeker) and, finally, who knows what is best for the military -- Congress or the Pentagon? But to understand, one must begin at the beginning.

When Britain's Ministry of Defense, or MOD, went shopping for a new attack helicopter back in the early nineties, the competition was fierce and the inducements to make a deal were many. Boeing's Apache Longbow eventually was chosen, based in part on a written pledge by then-secretary of defense William Perry that the United States would consider using Starstreak if the Pentagon ever decided to augment the Apache's lethality against ground targets with an air to-air capability.

Early congressional support for the plan was bolstered by the Kennedy clan -- Sen. Edward and Reps. Patrick and Joe -- who with others wrote to the president in November 1995, saying the fact that Starstreak was manufactured in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and could mean 350 new jobs there, might make a deal "especially timely" in light of the then-ongoing peace process. The new jobs were to go to Catholics.

The deal got done, with the United Kingdom's MOD buying 67 Apache Longbows, but the troubles began when the British took Perry's Starstreak pledge seriously. The Army seemed reluctant from the start to evaluate Starstreak (which until then was exclusively a surface-to-air missile) in an air-to-air role -- largely, they say, because they lacked any formal requirement to do so. Although an Army "mission-needs statement" long has recognized that its attack helicopters someday may require an air-to-air capability, an Operational Requirement Document, or ORD, is needed to begin actually acquiring a capability.

"Do we need it.? No," says an Army source close to the program. "It's not even a medium-priority requirement. We've got tons of higher priorities we can't meet, and it's premature to jump into this thing."

The Army believes it largely has lived up to the promises made by a defense secretary who long since has moved on, pointing to $55 million it has spent since the early nineties evaluating Starstreak. …

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