“V” For Versatility: Osprey Reaches For New Missions

Author(s): Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.
Posted in: Defense

Issue Brief

After a long wait, the joint force is growing accustomed to using the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor in operational missions. However, it will probably take a good deal longer before Osprey missions become routine, because no military force has ever before possessed a combat aircraft that combines the speed and range of a fixed-wing plane with the vertical agility of a helicopter. The V-22 is a revolutionary system, one that will change the way users conduct military operations.

Over the last several months, the Osprey has transported troops and supplies in Iraq; executed offensive combat missions in Afghanistan; and provided humanitarian assistance in Haiti. As the military grows increasingly confident about the V-22′s performance, it will gradually be applied to the full panoply of tactical activities, from special-forces insertion to medical evacuation to battlefield logistics. With a 1,000 mile range, a cruising speed of nearly 300 miles per hour, and an ability to land just about anywhere, the array of missions the V-22 might accomplish is nearly endless.

Although the Osprey costs more than a conventional helicopter, its versatility makes it a bargain for the joint force. The same aircraft can carry out many different missions, flying far beyond the operational range of a typical rotorcraft at much higher speeds. It is also intrinsically more survivable than a helicopter, given its speed and maneuverability. These features suggest that the Osprey will find its way into many mission areas not included in its original concept of operations. Here are some areas where it could easily surpass the performance of existing aircraft:

Combat search and rescue. The Air Force’s fleet of HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters used in rescuing downed pilots and other endangered personnel has grown decrepit with age. Even when it was new, though, it couldn’t have begun to match the reach and responsiveness of tilt-rotors. Some think the Air Force will just buy more HH-60s, but that would leave the service unable to reach some warfighters in the future that a V-22 could rescue. The service therefore needs to consider buying a mixed fleet of helicopters and more capable tilt-rotors.

Carrier on-board delivery. The Navy maintains a small fleet of fixed-wing planes that deliver high-priority supplies to aircraft carriers when they are at sea. It will probably need to begin replacing the propeller-driven planes towards the end of the next decade, and the V-22 has nearly identical range and payload features without requiring arresting gears or catapults to land on a carrier. The vertical takeoff and landing capability of the V-22 would enable it to supply a wider range of warships, while being less dependent on bases ashore that might be subject to enemy attack.

Executive transport. The Obama Administration has canceled plans to buy the only conventional helicopter that could have met future presidential transport requirements as a successor to the aging White House fleet. With no other conventional helicopter well-suited to the mission, Osprey may be the only domestically-designed rotorcraft that can satisfy payload, range and survivability criteria. The military version of the V-22 will be operated primarily by the Marine Corps, which is also responsible for providing presidential helicopters. More importantly, V-22 can meet all performance requirements for the canceled program while being available much sooner than alternatives.