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Saturday, August 1, 2009

V-22: It's Time to Move On

By Giovanni de Briganti

The V-22 Osprey has had a long, expensive and very chequered history, and in addition to highly publicized — and very deadly — crashes it has suffered more than its share of criticism. So, initial reports from the Marine Corps about its glowing performance in Iraq were received as a sign that one of modern aviation’s most intriguing concepts had finally matured.

Of course, we should have known better. A study of the Iraq deployments by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and June 23 hearings by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, laid bare the sorry truth: the V-22 seriously underperformed in Iraq; it is unsuited for shipboard deployment; and it is hideously expensive. So bad was its performance, in fact, that Committee chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) called for a halt to its production, saying "It’s time to put the Osprey out of its misery."

Despite a spirited — and sometimes exasperated — defense by Marine Col. Karsten S. Heckl, commander of Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 162 (VMM-162), one of three squadrons that flew the MV-22 in Iraq, the hearings pretty well demolished whatever credibility the V-22 still had. Here are some points that came to light.

In Iraq, the three MV-22 squadrons averaged mission capable rates of 68, 57, and 61 percent respectively, instead of the objective of 87 percent, GAO found; Iraq-based CH-46Es and CH-53s were averaging 85 percent or better.

Availability was not better fleet-wide. Only 47 of the 105 Ospreys that the Marine Corps has bought since 1988 are considered "combat deployable," and only 22 of these 47 were ready for combat on a given day, according to information provided by the Corps for the hearing.

Indeed, costs are exploding. The V-22’s research, development, test and evaluation costs have tripled since 1988, from $4.2 to $12.7 billion, while the number to be procured was halved, from nearly 1,000 to less than 500. And a V-22 flying hour costs $11,000, or 140 percent more than the CH-46E it is intended to replace, the GAO says.

But did it perform well? Lt. Gen. George J. Trautman, the Marine Corps’ Deputy Commandant for Aviation, noted with satisfaction during the hearing that "the three VMM squadrons that have deployed to Iraq have flown over 9,800 hours while executing more than 6,000 sorties, carrying over 45,000 passengers and lifting 2.2 million pounds of cargo." But this works out to an average of 7.5 passengers and 366 lbs load per sortie, which is pretty dismal performance for an aircraft costing $93 million.

Operationally, the V-22 cannot fly above 10,000 feet, and as it does not have a weather radar and its ice protection system is unreliable, it is currently prohibited from flying through known or forecasted icing conditions. A bit low for Afghanistan, where it is due to deploy next.

And, although the Marine Corps will be its largest user, the V-22 is not suitable for shipboard deployment. "Ships can carry fewer V-22s than its predecessor aircraft... and is only cleared to take off and land from four of the six operational deck spots of the LHA- and LHD-class ships usable by CH-46s." Furthermore, rotor downwash is dangerous and can blow people off the deck.

Finally, during testimony it emerged that, to prevent the V-22’s very hot exhaust from damaging flight decks while the aircraft idles more than one or two minutes, sailors are forced to place protective metal plates under the engine exhausts, and to reposition them each time it moves.

Congressman Towns summed up by saying the V-22 "has problems in hot weather, it has problems in cold weather, it has problems with sand, it has problems with high altitude and it has restricted maneuverability... we’ve gotten half the aircraft for three times the cost."

Clearly, and except for very few, carefully selected missions, the V-22 is not up to the job it was designed for. There are too many things wrong with it to hope it can be fixed. As it has already cost $29 billion, it would be very wasteful to cancel the program, but what else to do? Pretend its shortcomings and faults don’t exist and then express surprise and regrets when the next crash kills all aboard? Or when one is shot down as it lands in a combat zone?

Compared to the flood of money lavished on the banking and mortgage systems, the Osprey’s $29 billion are just a rounding error. It’s time to admit the V-22 is a challenge that hasn’t worked out, and move on to other technologies that will provide fast, efficient and affordable medium lift.

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