Friday, June 26, 2009

Airplanes & Politics: The V-22 Osprey is Scary!

The San Diego Union Tribune and the North County Times in northern San Diego County ran news articles on June 24 about the tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey—the aircraft which takes off and lands like a helicopter but flies like a plane.

V-22 Osprey in flight

This aircraft first flew in 1989 and, to date, has cost $28.8 billion. And it just went into active service late last year. The Osprey has been “tested” in Iraq although did not fly on any combat missions. So far it has not been deployed to Afghanistan.

Conversations have come up recently about the F-22 Raptor and its future with the Air Force, especially since it is primarily an air superiority aircraft in an age when that has not been an issue. This incredibly expensive piece of hardware is the beneficiary of an attempt by some members of congress to buy additional units. Pres. Obama has threatened to veto a defense appropriations bill if it includes funding for additional F22s which the military has not requested.

But the Osprey is more problematic. It is supposed to replace 2 highly reliable but aging helicopters, the twin rotor CH-46 Sea Knight and the CH-53 Sea Stallion currently used by the Marines and Navy. These helicopters have been around since Viet Nam. The most important thing about them though is that they work!

CH-53 Sea Stallion

From a military point of view, the United States is far more likely to be in a conflict requiring “boots on the ground” than air superiority. We are far more likely to have to land Marines by air assault and to then support those troops than to engage in aerial “dog fights”. Those Marines and soldiers deserve the best support that is possible to provide. Support that works and facilitates their mission.

CH-46 Sea Knight

Here are some scary things about the Osprey (according to the Union Tribune and North County Times articles):

The Osprey was originally specified to carry 24 troops, however heavier troop equipment has reduced that to 20 and the planned installation of a gun in the Osprey’s belly to improve its defense would reduce that to 18.

The Osprey has an operating ceiling of 10,000 feet (apparently because of problems with the aircraft’s de-icing system). In Afghanistan, many peaks are over 12,000 feet in height.

The cost of operating the Osprey has more than doubled from original estimates and is now $11,000 per hour, twice what it cost for the CH-46. And the cost per aircraft has increased more than 148 percent from $37.7 million when first launched in 1985 to $93.4 million today. And remember, when close to the ground in landing or take-off mode, the aircraft is highly vulnerable to some dude with a rocket propelled grenade being able to shoot it down for about $100!

“It can’t land without power—a vital maneuver called autorotation that saved thousands of lives in Vietnam—without the danger of flipping into its own downwash. It isn’t capable of maneuvering in combat conditions.” (Union Tribune)

V-22 Osprey in Iraq

Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-NY was quoted in the Union Tribune article as saying: “It can’t be used in hot weather. It can’t be used in cold weather. It can’t be used in sand. The list of what the Osprey can’t do is longer than what it can do.” Towns chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform which is investigating the cost overruns and mechanical problems of the Osprey.

The Government Accountability Office has “recommended a new analysis of the military’s needs” in terms of the Osprey program projected to cost $75 billion over the 30-year program cost. Of course, part of the question is when did the program start? 1985? In that case it only has 6 years to go and so far no widespread deployment of the aircraft.

It is scheduled to be deployed to Miramar Marine Airbase and Camp Pendleton. Miramar in San Diego and Pendleton 40 miles north of San Diego.

The F-22 Raptor can fulfill its mission. The debate is about the relevance and cost of the mission. Few doubt the relevance of the V-22 Osprey’s mission. The Osprey is a cool-looking aircraft. But cool-looking doesn’t get the mission of the Marine Corps accomplished.

(Note: All photos from Google Images)

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