Article Published in the Sea Power
So uncharted is the national security landscape in the first decade following the end of Cold War that the Pentagon has declared “uncertainty” the enemy. What is clearly known is the effect this has had on U.S. defense planning. Since 1989, the U.S. defense budget and the size of the U.S. military have each been cut by more than a third. This smaller force has scarcely had a moment to relax in what had been predicted to be an era of “strategic pause.” Instead, the force has registered a high operational tempo as it has swung between missions across the spectrum of warfare — from strikes against terrorists to peacekeeping to deterrence against traditional foes like Iraq and North Korea. A smaller, but more widely used force has driven the U.S. military to embrace the concept of “efficiency” like never before.
It has been a challenge. Namely, how to meet the widest range of missions possible with a smaller, more cost-conscious force based in the United States? This burden falls disproportionately on the Navy and Marine Corps because the waning of America’s Cold-War alliances and overseas basing network has shifted much of the global force-projection mission to sea-based forces. The two services are continuously searching for creative ways of accomplishing their growing responsibilities expeditiously.
Fortunately, the Pentagon already has in hand a key tool to help do this, even if planners have not yet fully recognized its potential. It is the V-22 Osprey, the tilt-rotor aircraft that can take-off and land like a helicopter and fly long distances at high speeds like a regular plane. In one system, the Pentagon has an aircraft which can replace a costly variety of helicopters and planes while meeting the array of traditional and new mission requirements that mark the uncertain post-Cold War era.
The “V” in V-22 stands for “vertical,” but might as well mean “versatile” because of the plane’s ability to most efficiently handle today’s range of real-world missions facing the U.S. military. Several Pentagon components want to buy V-22s, but the plane’s unique advantages in speed, range and flexibility suggest a broader application across the entire Defense Department.
In the lead as the largest single purchaser of V-22s under the Pentagon’s current buying plan is the Marine Corps, which is heavily committed to the theater-wide flexibility inherent in the tilt- rotor design. By 2001, Marine Corps Air Station New River in North Carolina will have a full V-22 squadron up and running, VMMT-204. Eventually the Marine Corps will buy 360 V-22 Ospreys, replacing all its dangerously aged CH-46 twin-rotor helicopters, most of which entered service before the pilots who fly them were born.
This is the principal mission for which the V-22 is now being purchased — to lift combat Marines from ships at sea to landing sites ashore. A great increase in capability over slower, more vulnerable helicopters now saddled with this mission, the Osprey will substantially boost Marine Corps capability.With the Osprey, Marines will be able to sortie from sea-based ships stationed farther off-shore, outside the range of increasingly lethal enemy anti-ship missiles. They will also be able to close faster on landing zones that are deeper into enemy territory than could previously be reached via helicopter.
Also recognizing the Osprey’s advantage in speed and range over helicopters is the U.S. Special Operations Command. It’s Air Force component, the Air Force Special Operations Command, or AFSOC, intends to buy 50 CV-22Bs by 2010. Modified and armed for covert, night- time infiltration and exfiltration missions, the CV-22s will replace three different AFSOC platforms: MH-53J Pave Low and MH-60G Blackhawk helicopters, and some MC-130 fixed wing transport and refueling planes. Besides Combat Search and Rescue, AFSOC will incorporate the V-22 into the full range of its mission planning, which encompasses strikes against terrorists to the evacuation of embassies to direct action and hostage rescue.
Rounding out the U.S. military’s current planned purchase, the Navy will receive about 48 HV-22Bs, outfitted to handle the fleet’s need to rescue pilots shot down at sea, called Combat Search and Rescue. Navy V-22s will also transport Navy SEAL commandos for special warfare strike, intelligence and reconnaissance missions and handle some fleet logistics tasks such as the vertical replenishment of ships underway. Because of the V-22’s sizable cargo bay, the V-22 can also be easily pressed into service as an aerial refueling platform for carrier-based and amphibious ship-based Navy and Marine Corps aircraft.
Totaling some 458 V-22s, the Pentagon’s current multi-service buying plan looks impressive. But when the versatility of the V-22 is matched against other existing demands on the Defense Department today and the requirement for increases in military efficiency and cost effectiveness, it is clear that a larger purchase of V-22s should be seriously considered. From Coast Guard rescue missions to Army medevac and air assault, the V-22 can replace even more helicopters and planes than now planned. That would lower procurement costs, increase commonality and boost multi-service cooperation around a single, flexible platform.
Though the first V-22s are only now entering regular military service, Osprey can hardly be called a new program.
On June 4, 1982, the Army, Navy and Air Force agreed to cooperate in the development of a Joint Services Advanced Vertical Lift Aircraft. Early plans called for 1,100 of the aircraft to be built. By 1986, the Pentagon awarded a contract to the teamed Bell and Boeing helicopter companies to build the first six prototype V-22s. The first Osprey flew on a Sunday, March 19,1989. It went to sea for shipboard testing aboard the amphibious warship Wasp in December 1990. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney tried to kill the program, saying the Pentagon could not afford such a revolutionary plane as the defense budget declined in the wake of the Cold War. Congress balked at this move and the Bush Administration relented in its waning months. The Clinton Administration has supported the program and awarded contracts for more V-22s in late 1994. Almost a dozen V-22s have been built to date. So far, testers have accumulated more than 1,200 hours of flight testing across 1,000 separate flights.
To date the V-22 has met or exceeded all its requirements. In fact, it is currently about 800 lbs. beneath its planned empty weight — a key threshold that often presents problems to aircraft designers. This progress indicates that V-22 should meet with little difficulty in taking on missions beyond that already planned for the Marine Corps, Navy and the Air Force’s Special Operations Command. AV-22s provide the sort of agility and mission adaptability traditionally sought by Special Operations Forces, remarks Rey Maduro Sr., head of Research Planning, Inc, a company with long involvement in the special ops field. Special Operations seeks every opportunity to leverage service common platforms and systems that can be modified for SOF mission requirements.
The V-22 is an excellent example of a very cost effective way to achieve operational versatility by adapting an aircraft developed for other missions. It’s an attractive option. Already destined for service with the Air Force as a special operations platform, there is little modification required for the
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