The changing face of military aviation
Second in an occasional series
The series so far…
Go to war — Play videogames
Osprey: A Flying Shame
As an amateur with an interest in all things aviation, history, technology, and the history of technology, we have followed the Osprey tilt-rotor story with interest and concern for close to 20 years.
Last week, Time magazine eviscerated Osprey, and the ugly industrial-governmental tango that has nursed it from an uncertain birth, a troubled childhood and adolescence into a deadly maturity. And, unfortunately, we don’t mean deadly to an enemy, as Osprey is essentially toothless, and seems mainly dangerous to its hapless crew and passengers.
The U.S. Marine Corps’ goal for the Osprey program has been to harness the flexibility and maneuverability of a helicopter with the straight-ahead point to point cruising speed of a fixed wing aircraft. Nothing wrong with such a goal, in theory.
But when converting theory to realty, execution is everything, and the Osprey has been an ugly example of poor execution in most every way possible during its lifetime, which began during the Reagan administration!
Even in this day of long lead time military programs (due more to Congressional restraints over outrageous costs than technological challenges, although there are always those aplenty), the fact that Osprey is just now, after more than 20 years, taking its place on the front lines, and with many questions still open regarding its utility and reliability, is astonishing.
The “lay” public has only been conscious of the Osprey when it burst onto Headline News via its many fatal crashes during its lengthy run up to service. Time did us a service by more completely detailing its story.
A V-22 flies over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina. Ted Carlson / Check Six
It’s hard to imagine an American weapons program so fraught with problems that Dick Cheney would try repeatedly to cancel it — hard, that is, until you get to know the Osprey. As Defense Secretary under George H.W. Bush, Cheney tried four times to kill the Marine Corps’s ungainly tilt-rotor aircraft. Four times he failed. Cheney found the arguments for the combat troop carrier unpersuasive and its problems irredeemable. “Given the risk we face from a military standpoint, given the areas where we think the priorities ought to be, the V-22 is not at the top of the list,” he told a Senate committee in 1989. “It came out at the bottom of the list, and for that reason, I decided to terminate it.” But the Osprey proved impossible to kill, thanks to lawmakers who rescued it from Cheney’s ax time and again because of the home-district money that came with it — and to the irresistible notion that American engineers had found a way to improve on another great aviation breakthrough, the helicopter.
Now the aircraft that flies like an airplane but takes off and lands like a chopper is about to make its combat debut in Iraq. It has been a long, strange trip: the V-22 has been 25 years in development, more than twice as long as the Apollo program that put men on the moon. V-22 crashes have claimed the lives of 30 men — 10 times the lunar program’s toll — all before the plane has seen combat. The Pentagon has put $20 billion into the Osprey and expects to spend an additional $35 billion before the program is finished. In exchange, the Marines, Navy and Air Force will get 458 aircraft, averaging $119 million per copy.
In this extended cover story, Time takes the time to illustrate some larger truths about how our government works, or not:
The saga of the V-22 — the battles over its future on Capitol Hill, a performance record that is spotty at best, a long, determined quest by the Marines to get what they wanted — demonstrates how Washington works (or, rather, doesn’t). It exposes the compromises that are made when narrow interests collide with common sense. It is a tale that shows how the system fails at its most significant task, by placing in jeopardy those we count on to protect us.
As with any hybrid, Osprey can be both helicopter and fixed wing aircraft, but of course much is compromised in the mix. It’s not a good helicopter (read the Time story about Osprey’s autorotation challenge, and gasp) and for a combat aircraft it’s criminally under-armed.
Osprey was supposed to be equipped with a .50 caliber three-barreled machine gun in its nose, so it could protect its landing zone with a hail of heavy bullets.
But the added weight (1,000 lbs., or 450 kg) and cost ($1.5 million per V-22) ultimately pushed the gun into the indefinite future. … So 10 V-22s are going to war this month, each with just a lone, small 7.62-mm machine gun mounted on its rear ramp. The gun’s rounds are about the same size as a .30-06 hunting rifle’s, and it is capable of firing only where the V-22 has been — not where it’s going — and only when the ramp used by Marines to get on and off the aircraft is lowered.
[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]
I fear for the Marines as Osprey deploys to the dusty deserts of wartime Iraq. There’s fearless courage (a Marine specialty), but deploying the V-22 into this already futile war seems like a brand new tragedy in the making.
A cliché first coined during my childhood once again proves why it’s so often used:
In many ways, the V-22 is a classic example of how large weapons systems have been built in the U.S. since Dwight Eisenhower warned in 1961 of the “unwarranted influence” of “the military-industrial complex.”
I hope stories like this one in a widely read general interest publication help daylight other high-cost military programs: F-22 Raptor (is it really stealthy at all?); F-35 Lightning II –the Joint Strike Fighter — (how does light and less expensive equal more capable, exactly?) to name just two.
It would be tragic to wait 20 years to learn the ugly secrets about them.
It’s it for now. Thanks,