Against this backdrop, critics are complaining that some of the weapons being developed by the services don’t seem to have much to do with winning the global war on terrorism. Programs like the Joint Strike Fighter and the Navy’s next-generation destroyer may be needed to counter future conventional threats, the critics say, but right now all the threats seem to be unconventional — terrorists, insurgents, weapons traffickers and so on. The critics have a point, especially given how poorly the fight seems to be going in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, there is at least one new military system about to enter the force that is relevant right now, and badly needed in places like Iraq. That is the Marine Corps’ V-22 Osprey, the world’s first operational tilt-rotor aircraft. A tilt-rotor combines the vertical agility of helicopters with the speed and range of fixed-wing planes, providing unique versatility. It not only can land anywhere — on mountains, in jungles, on storm-tossed ships — but it can get to such places even when they are far, far away, because the Osprey has a range of over a thousand miles. In other words, you can fly a V-22 from Washington to New Orleans without stopping for fuel, not a mission you’d want to attempt with a regular helicopter. A fixed-wing airplane can make that trip also, but if the runways in the Big Easy are flooded, it can’t land. A V-22 can make the trip and land, wherever there is a dry spot of ground.
It doesn’t require a degree from Professor Rumsfeld’s School for the Truly Transformational to figure out that this a special capability, one well-suited to a world of irregular warfare, unconventional threats, and homeland disasters. In fact, the Marine Corps figured it out a generation ago, and has stuck with the Osprey through a rocky development effort reminiscent of the trials faced a generation earlier by the helicopters it will replace. But the Osprey was vindicated last year in a very successful operational evaluation, and it will be deployed to Iraq next year. The Marine Corps plans to produce 21 V-22’s in 2008 and 30 per year in each of the following five years. A gee-whiz special-operations version for the Air Force will be fielded in 2009.
As the Osprey enters the force in the years ahead, planners in the Army and other services are going to be kicking themselves that they didn’t invest more in tilt-rotors. Why buy conventional twin-engine turboprops to carry cargo to remote bases when you can carry three tons of supplies 500 miles, and not even need a runway once you arrive? Why struggle to trade off the advantages of a helicopter versus an airplane in conducting difficult combat missions when a single airframe combines the best qualities of both? In the fight for relevance the V-22 is a clear winner, and the only question is why it took so long for some experts to figure that out.
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