Will the Army Ever Buy the V-22 Osprey?


Osprey3On a rainy day in Paris earlier this year, the Marine Corps officer who oversees the V-22 Osprey program talked about the aircraft's rising international demand.

More than a few countries are lining up to buy the tilt-rotor aircraft, which takes off and lands like a helicopter and flies like a plane, Col. Greg Masiello said during a June 17 press conference with reporters at the Paris Air Show. He didn't specify which, though the Defense Department has already said Israel will be the first.

International sales of the V-22, made by a joint venture between Textron Inc.'s Bell Helicopter unit and Boeing Co., may eventually reach more than 100 aircraft, Masiello said. That's on top of the U.S. military's planned purchase of 458 Ospreys, including 360 for the Marine Corps, 50 for the Air Force and 48 for the Navy, he said.

The Army, however, still doesn't plan to buy any.

The largest military service actually began development of the vertical-lift program that led to the V-22 in the early 1980s. It officially dropped out several years later to build a new stealthy helicopter called Comanche. When that program was cancelled after an investment of several billion dollars, it bought conventional utility, cargo and attack helicopters such as the UH-60 Black Hawk, CH-47 Chinook and AH-64 Apache.

While the Army has a checkered history in developing new choppers after the Vietnam War, the existing fleet of rotorcraft helped the service survive the past decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Richard Whittle, author of the book, "The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey."

"They’ve needed every Black Hawk and CH-47 and OH-58 they could get their hands on," he said in a telephone interview. "It’s been a very intensive decade for Army rotorcraft. So their money has gone further than it would have, frankly, if they were buying V-22s."

As the wars wound down, the service began rethinking its aviation strategy. It now plans to ramp up spending on a new vertical-lift development program.

The Army over the next five years plans to spend $463 million on advanced aviation technology, mostly for a program called the Joint Multi-Role, or JMR, Aircraft Demonstrator, to initially design next-generation replacements for the medium-sized transport and attack helicopters, according to Pentagon budget documents. Spending would rise from $81 million in fiscal 2014, which began Oct. 1, to $102 million in fiscal 2018, the documents show.

Textron's Bell, AVX Aircraft Co. and a joint venture of Boeing Co. and United Technologies Corp.'s Sikorsky Aircraft, have already submitted designs. The Army wants a flying prototype by 2017.

But it’s not clear whether the service is fully committed to the effort.

"Next-gen research programs have the same function in the Army bureaucracy as creating commissions on Capitol Hill -- it's their way of kicking ideas down the road," said Loren Thompson, chief executive officer of Source Associates, a for-profit defense consultancy, who has written favorably of the V-22 program.

So why doesn't the Army just buy the Osprey, which is already in production?

With 214 of the aircraft operating in the U.S. fleet, the V-22 flies faster and farther than conventional helicopters.

The Osprey has a top speed of more than 300 miles per hour – comparable to that of a turbo-prop plane – and a range of more than 1,000 miles. By comparison, the medium-left helicopter it's replacing, the Corps’ CH-46 Sea Knight, has a top speed of 166 miles per hour and a range of 633 miles.

During the past decade, the U.S. military flew the V-22 extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To highlight the rotorcraft's effectiveness in combat, Masiello told a story about a mission in Afghanistan in 2010. More than 30 coalition troops were trapped after their CH-47 Chinook crashed from enemy fire, he said. Two Ospreys from Kandahar were dispatched to rescue the personnel, flying hundreds of miles in bad weather as high as 15,000 feet over mountaintops, he said.

"You could not do that with any other aircraft," he said.

A pair of V-22s was used similarly in Libya in 2011 to rescue an Air Force fighter pilot whose F-15E crashed near Benghazi during a coalition mission to oust Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Critics have questioned the aircraft’s safety record. Three dozen people have died in seven Osprey accidents, mostly during development testing, according to published reports. When an Air Force V-22 went down during a mission in Afghanistan in 2011, four of the 20 passengers were killed. Service members at one time called it, "The Widow-Maker."

Yet cost, not safety, is likely the biggest issue for the Army. The Osprey costs about $70 million apiece, more than triple that of a Black Hawk. Even if the V-22 boasts cheaper costs per passenger, its price tag is simply too high for the service, which is downsizing due in part to budget cuts.

The Osprey also isn’t necessarily designed for Army-specific missions. For example, its cargo cabin isn’t wide enough to carry a Humvee or the service’s future light-duty truck known as the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, or JLTV.

"The V-22 is just the first production tilt-rotor," Whittle, the author, said in a telephone interview. "Essentially, it’s 1980s technology.

"I don't think the Army will end up buying the V-22," he added. "It’s expensive. It’s complicated. It has disadvantages for their mission. But I think it’s very likely that the Army will buy a tilt-rotor of some kind."

United Technologies’ Sikorsky has already begun building a light tactical helicopter with coaxial rotors and a pusher-prop called S-97 Raider for the service’s Armed Aerial Scout program to replace the OH-58 Kiowa. The effort may be the Army’s only new aviation acquisition to receive continued funding.

Textron’s Bell is developing the V-280 Valor for the medium Joint Multi-Role demonstrator aircraft.

And Karem Aircraft Inc., founded by Abraham Karem, who designed the early MQ-1 Predator drone and A-160 Hummingbird unmanned helicopter, is developing a larger, "optimum speed" tilt-rotor capable of carrying an M2 Bradley or Stryker armored infantry vehicle.

The tilt-rotor concept is still the most "elegant solution" to the basic aerodynamic problem of combining two kinds of thrust – vertical and horizontal – to avoid the need for a runway, Whittle said. "The V-22 is an ugly duckling that turned into a swan. But that doesn't mean you can't get something better now because technology advances so rapidly."

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