Over the last two decades, no military technology program has been the target of more fashionable criticism from pundits and politicians than the V-22 Osprey developed by the U.S. Marine Corps. The revolutionary “tilt-rotor” aircraft has the speed and range of a fixed-wing aircraft, and yet can hover or land anywhere a helicopter can by tilting its rotor up 90 degrees. Critics said it cost too much, that it was too complicated, and that it was dangerous to operate. But the Marines stuck with the Osprey, because they saw it was uniquely suited to the needs of warfighters who must be able to go anywhere on short notice.
This week, two Ospreys from the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge provided a real-world demonstration of why the Marines were so eager to acquire the aircraft. With close air support from Harrier jumpjets, the Ospreys rescued the stranded pilot of an Air Force F-15E fighter-bomber that had crashed in Libya. Because they are tilt-rotors rather than conventional helicopters, the Ospreys got to the downed pilot faster than any conventional helicopter could have. In fact, it isn’t so clear regular helicopters could have rescued the pilot at all, given the distances involved.
That raises an interesting question for policymakers. The Air Force has been trying to modernize its decrepit fleet of search-and-rescue helicopters for some time, but all the entrants in the most recent competition — which defense secretary Robert Gates canceled in 2009 — were conventional helicopters. The reason why was that the V-22 was deemed too expensive by Air Force planners, a judgment that seems to have given short shrift to the fact Ospreys can fly a lot farther and a lot faster than any normal rotorcraft. In other words, a commitment to doing search and rescue the old way led the service to overlook the much greater performance of the V-22, which might arguably have made it the most cost-effective airframe for the mission.
It is also worth noting that the two Ospreys used on Tuesday to rescue the Air Force pilot aren’t just dedicated to a handful of specialized missions. They are workhorse assets available for everything from force insertion to medical evacuation to logistics support. In fact, V-22s are by far the most versatile airframe in the fleet, because they combine the best features of plane and helicopter. And oh, by the way, they’re also the safest airframe in the Marine inventory, with no fatal crashes in the last ten years despite numerous deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti and elsewhere (an Air Force tilt-rotor crashed in Afghanistan during a combat mission last year; 80 percent of the occupants survived despite hitting the ground at high speed due to various built-in safety features).
The point here isn’t that the critics were wrong about the V-22. The point is that the Osprey deserves more consideration as a next-generation search-and-rescue aircraft. It is intrinsically superior to any other solution available, and in many scenarios it may be the only system that can actually accomplish a rescue mission before distressed warfighters are captured or killed. Pentagon policymakers spin a good story about how people are the joint force’s most important asset, but the real test of whether they mean it is if they are ready to spend money to save those people when they’re at risk. Rethinking how search-and-rescue missions are performed with an eye to getting the best performance rather than the best price might be an eye-opening experience for military planners — one that would enable them to see the inherent superiority of the V-22 over any other approach.
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