In the early 1970s, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt pushed the idea of the Sea Control Ship (SCS), a small carrier that would defend sea-lanes against long-range Soviet strike aircraft and Soviet submarines. Faced with the growing expense of modern supercarriers (the first Nimitz class carrier would enter service in just a few years) and the impending retirement of the venerable Essex class carriers, Zumwalt sought a low cost option for air operations that did not demand the full capabilities of a major carrier group. Escort carriers had helped win the Battle of the Atlantic, and Sea Control Ships might make a similar contribution in a NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict.
Weapons die for all kinds of different reasons. Sometimes they happen at the wrong time, either in the midst of defense austerity, or with the wrong constellation of personnel. Sometimes they fall victim to the byzantine bureaucracy of the Pentagon, or to turf fights between the services. And sometimes they die because they were a bad idea in the first place. For the same reasons, bad defense systems can often survive the most inept management if they fill a particular niche well enough.
Recommended: How China Plans to Win a War Against the U.S. Navy
Recommended: How the Air Force Would Destroy North Korea
Recommended: 10 Reasons No Nation Wants to Fight Israel
This article concentrates on five systems that died, but that might have had transformative effects if they had survived. These transformations would only rarely have changed the course of wars (countries win and lose wars for many reasons besides technology), but rather would have had ripple effects across the entire defense industrial base, altering how our military organizations approached warfighting and procurement. Not all the changes would have been for the best; sometimes programs are canceled for sound reasons.
In the early 1960s, the Army was just beginning to appreciate the value of helicopter aviation. The Army had used helicopters at the end of World War II, and used them extensively in Korea for reconnaissance and evacuation purposes. As the sophistication of the machines grew, however, the Army began to see the prospect for much more advanced helicopters that could conduct a wide variety of missions.
The star of the show was supposed to be the AH-56 Cheyenne , a radical design that combined high speed with punching power. The Cheyenne could escort other helicopters in transport mission, or conduct ground support and attack ops independently. In particular, it contained a magnificent propulsion system that could offer speeds of up to 275 miles per hour.
But the Cheyenne fell victim to its own promise. The technologies that made the Cheyenne possible weren’t yet mature, and the early prototypes suffered from teething problems, leading to a fatal crash. The Air Force hated the whole idea of the Cheyenne, believing that the Army was trying to steal close air support and interdiction missions for itself. The Air Force went so far as to propose a fixed-wing attack aircraft (which would eventually become the A-10) in its effort to kill the program. Finally, the Vietnam War put enormous pressure on the defense budget, both in terms of making it harder to sell particular programs, and in diverting funds to directly support the war effort.
And so the Cheyenne never happened. Although, a few years later, the Army would push forward with the AH-64 Apache. In this sense, the cancelation of the Cheyenne merely delayed an advanced attack helicopter capability. But the Apache was also a much safer machine than the Cheyenne, and going with the more conventional system has undoubtedly limited the horizons of Army aviation.
The B-70 Valkyrie deserves its own operatic cycle . Envisioned as the replacement for the B-52 Stratofortress and the B-58 Hustler, the B-70 was designed to penetrate Soviet airspace at high altitude, and upwards of Mach 3. Beloved of the “Bomber Mafia,” a generation of senior officers who had cut their teeth in World War II’s Combined Bomber Offensive, the B-70 represented, to many, the future of the Air Force.
And just to show I’m not a hard-hearted guy, and it’s not all dollars and cents, the B-70 was a beautiful aircraft. Long and sleek, the Valkyrie resembles a space ship more than an aircraft. The surviving prototype remains on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.
But the Valkyrie was enormously expensive, and this expense made it vulnerable. First President Eisenhower, then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara were less than enchanted with the idea of spending enormous sums on another heavy bomber when ICBMs showed great promise in delivering nuclear weapons to the Soviet homeland. Advances in Soviet interceptor and surface-to-air missile technology were also making the B-70’s mission considerably more dangerous than first anticipated.