The Marine Corps is about to deploy a squadron of Bell-Boeing MV-22B Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft aboard an amphibious assault ship. The pending departure of the USS Bataan (LHD 5) will mark the first time that an Osprey squadron has "gone to sea" for operations with a Marine assault unit.
A sister ship of the Bataan, the USS Wasp (LHD 1), had embarked ten Ospreys of Marine Medium Tilt-Rotor Squadron (VMM) 263 in September 2007 to transport the tilt-rotor aircraft to Iraq. They have operated successfully in that conflict, with other squadrons rotating into the county to fly the transport aircraft. (These aircraft were transported by ship rather than being flown to Iraq because of concerns about icing during the North Atlantic portion of the trip, lack of Marine KC-130 tankers for mid-air refueling, and the desire to reduce flight hours on the aircraft.)
Operating primarily in western Iraq's Anbar province, the Osprey activities are credited with being highly successful. They are used principally for routine cargo and troop movements, and also for riskier "aero-scout" missions. General David Petraeus, then the senior U.S. military commander in Iraq, used one to fly around Iraq on Christmas Day 2007 to visit troops, and then-presidential candidate Barack Obama also flew in Ospreys during his high-profile 2008 tour of Iraq.
Discussions are underway with regard to the Marines also operating them in Afghanistan as U.S. military forces in that conflict area are increased.
For her coming forward deployment to the Middle East-Indian Ocean area the Bataan will embark the ten Ospreys of (again) VMM-263. The tilt-rotor aircraft will provide increased flexibility over the CH-46E Sea Knight and CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters that are normally deployed in LHA/LHD amphibious ships. The Osprey provides greater range, lift capacity, and speed compared to the helicopters. And, the Osprey can be refueled in flight.
The Bataan will also embark CH-53E Super Stallion heavy-lift helicopters as well as SeaCobra gunships and Huey utility helicopters. Normally these ships also have a detachment of AV-8B Harrier STOVL attack aircraft on board. It is not clear if the Bataan will carry those aircraft.
The Bataan's deployment follows a highly successful deployment of four Air Force CV-22 model Ospreys to North Africa in November 2008 for a multi-national exercise. Based at Hurlburt Field, Florida, those aircraft -- configured for special operations -- were flown overseas with in-flight refuelings. Dubbed Operation Flintlock, the 15-nation exercise in the trans-Sahara region was conducted without any significant problems with the Osprey.
The CV-22s -- from the Air Force's 8th Special Operations Squadron -- flew the 6,000-plus statute miles from Florida to Mali with several stops and with in-flight refuelings from Air Force MC-130 Hercules aircraft.
(Ironically, in 2007 several Air Force CV-22s conducted operations from the Bataan.)
Meanwhile, procurement of the Ospreys is continuing. The current Marine procurement goal is 458 MV-22 aircraft and the Air Force is acquiring 50 CV-22s for special operations (replacing the MH-53J Pave Low helicopter). Interestingly, the V-22 prefixes are erroneous as, according to Department of Defense guidance, the "M" should indicate multipurpose -- and is suitable for the Air Force special operations mission -- while the "C" prefix indicates cargo/transport, more suitable for the Marine's Osprey missions.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: I spoke with a Marine Lt. Col. yesterday at a conference on Afghanistan in Washington who brought up an interesting point I hadn't thought of regarding the Osprey's gun. He's a 53 pilot and mentioned that the BAE Systems "Remote Guardian" gun that's to be retrofitted to the Osprey doesn't have the ability to engage targets while on the ground. I discussed with him the Corps' contention that landing in hot LZs is an anachronism and he argued back that while Corps planners always try to avoid that situation, sometimes you've gotta go in with guns blazing.
That brings up the whole escort problem. Cobras can't keep up with the Osprey if it's truly taking advantage of its speed capabilities, so that injects a whole nother complexity into combat planners' task. I suppose you could use another Remote Guardian-equipped Osprey orbiting the LZ to cover the one dropping off or picking up pax. I'll be interested to see how SOCOM develops TTPs for the Osprey gun.]