After more than 20 years of development – and seven years after two fatal crashes nearly killed the program entirely – the Boeing/Bell V-22 Osprey is finally prepping to actually do its job. This fall Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 263 based at New River Marine Corps Air Station in North Carolina will deploy to Al Asad in western Iraq for seven months with around a dozen Ospreys, replacing 1960s-era Boeing H-46 Sea Knights for ferrying and re-supplying Marines fighting in that huge, desolate province.
Despite the Corps’ apparent confidence in their new bird, skeptics in the media and at think-tanks continue to predict disaster – foremost among them, Lee Gaillard from the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C., who last week weighed in with an email distributed to the media: “With lives at stake, the question bears repeating: how combat-ready and maintainable is the MV-22B Osprey?”
The heart of Gaillard’s criticism is, of course, that the V-22 is a fundamentally flawed design and will crash at a high rate due to the “vortex ring state” phenomenon that was a factor in the crashes during testing. VRS is, essentially, a chopper’s tendency to stall during certain descent profiles. But the Marines have proved in thousands of flight hours since 2000 that VRS can be avoided with proper training and tactics, as we reported at Ares in January.
But Gaillard has backup criticisms:
MV-22Bs are restricted from taking radical evasive maneuvers. Planned three-barrel nose turrets for clearing hostile landing zones have been replaced by ramp-mounted guns that fire to the rear and impede troop egress. Despite the technical review warning of component and flight control computer obsolescence issues conducted by US Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) in 2003, all V-22s were grounded last month because of faulty Texas Instruments chips in their computerized flight control systems.
A couple months back, following one of his anti-Osprey presentations, I asked Gaillard, these criticisms aside, if he wasn’t undervaluing the Osprey’s apparent strengths, including its high speed. He said that no speed advantage conferred by a tilt-rotor design was worth the cost and (he claims) crash risk.
Colonel Glenn Walters, one of the Marines’ most experienced Osprey pilots, begs to differ. He says that the V-22’s high speed — up to 300 miles per hour versus around 100 miles per hour for the H-46 – makes it perfect for “distributed operations,” the Marine Corps’ emerging “network-centric” concept for covering more ground with fewer troops.
“Aviation is the key enabler for distributed operations,” Walter says. He asks us to imagine ground ops at a distance of around 150 miles from their supply base. The Osprey can make multiple runs between the troops and their base on a single load of fuel at around 20 minutes per leg. An H-46 would require more than an hour. “Is that valuable?” he asks about the V-22’s superior speed. “Yes.”
I agree with Walters – and for good reason. In Maysan province in southern Iraq right now, the British are exploring their own version of distributed ops that has a small, light battlegroup roaming the desert with minimal logistics support. The battlegroup absolutely relies on daily resupply flights and short-notice medical evacuation flights by Merlin helicopters based 100 miles away at Basra Air Station. The speedy Merlins (around 200 miles per hour) can get to the battlegroup in just 30 minutes – and never miss a rendezvous owing to their high reliability and superior navigation and communications systems. I should know: I too relied on the Merlins when I visited the Maysan battlegroup in October.
The Osprey will do everything the Merlin does, but even better, for it is faster and – on account of its composite structure and digital troubleshooting systems – potentially more reliable. With fast, responsive Ospreys as their lifelines, widely dispersed Marine units will be even more mobile than the impressive British battlegroup. Distributed ops are the key to the Marine Corps’ vision of the future – and the V-22 Osprey is the key to distributed ops.