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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Changing Perspective; Changing Capability

By Andrew Drwiega

Attending a big defense exposition such as the recently held DSEI in London is no bad thing. The mainstream media had one central line of interest: Syria. The prospect of missile strikes in retaliation for President Assad’s widely alleged use of chemical weapons against his own people was on everyone’s mind. Afghanistan is yesterday’s news, despite the fact that according to Gen. Joseph Dunford, the current commander of the ISAF and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, the Afghan security forces are suffering a huge number of casualties, citing up to 100 killed per week. The sudden shift toward the prospect of mounting military operations against an adversary as complex as the Syrian military after more than a decade of military superiority in virtually every sector bar guile, was being reflected in the thoughts of senior officers. Not least was the fact that helicopters and UAVs, currently relatively immune to all but ground fire, would now classified as vulnerable again. A sudden hark back to the Cold War where helicopters going to the forward edge of the battlefront were not given good odds at coming back.

Conversely, there were also discussions that focused on the small interventionist type of operation. How could the integrated military machine that, among other things, delivers such good situational awareness (e.g., ISTAR) in Afghanistan be now “penny packaged” to offer a similar effect without having to resort to the over commitment of resources.

The Search for New Dimensions

One way to “sweat the asset” is to deliver more capability. The Bell-Boeing partnership is strongly building the V-22’s case for the U.S. Navy’s Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) aircraft recapitalization program. Adding dimensions to the V-22’s mission profile has become something of a mantra for the folks at Bell-Boeing.

The latest angle on this is the completion of trials using a prototype internal refueling rig to turn the Osprey into an inflight refueling tanker for the Navy’s fast jets.

While the partnership is yet to announce its first foreign customer for the V-22 (with this revealing perennially “just around the corner”), the U.S. Navy has continued to include a figure of 48 V-22s in its future planning requirements, but with no acquisition budget to date.

The aircraft currently filling the U.S. Navy’s COD role is Northrop Grumman’s 50-year veteran C2A Greyhound, with the manufacturer stating that an updated version would share greater commonality with the Navy’s modernization of its E-2D Hawkeye. So no new aircraft to buy with the benefit of shared through life maintenance and logistics costs.

Bell-Boeing is attacking its rival on the basis that it is simply a dedicated COD aircraft and being fixed-wing, fairly one-dimensional. A variety of mission possibilities are increasingly being associated with the V-22 on the other hand, the latest of which is in-flight refueling.

Ken Karika, a former V-22 pilot and now an Osprey business development manager, said that trials conducted in August over Texas involved the Osprey deploying, holding stable, and then retracting a refueling drogue out of the aircraft’s ramp. Two F/A-18 Hornets trailed the aircraft and Karika stated that there were no problems experienced regarding rotor wash from the Osprey, although an actual refueling was not attempted.

He added that the Osprey reached 238 knots but that achieving the Navy’s minimum recommended speed of 240 knots would not be a problem. The aim is to use a “plug and play” rig that can be quickly installed and removed from an Osprey to allow it to flex between its primary role of COD, to refueling tanker and on to other missions.

One important additional role for the V-22 could be the cross-decking of logistics between ships at sea. While traditional fleet helicopters such as Seahawks usually carry this out, the usefulness of having up to 15,000 lbs externally slung under a V-22 cannot be underestimated.

Those interested in the operational requirements for ship-to-ship redistribution of logistics and personnel during an operation should read Rear Admiral Chris Parry’s book “Down South,” which details his experience as a Flight Observer onboard a Wessex 3 helicopter during the Falklands Campaign in 1982. Not only was the aircraft continually busy with ship-to-ship operations and anti-submarine sonar patrols, but they were also key to the insertion, then rescue, of a Special Forces team on the Fortuna Glacier in South Georgia, as well as attacking and disabling the Argentine Navy submarine Santa Fe. Take note, on operations the task list possibilities are expanded to fit the immediate need.

The Navy’s ambition is to have the new aircraft in place around 2026 although the first aircraft may need to be in service sooner, as the current 35 Greyhounds will enter their out-of-service date between 2020-25.

 

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