The Marine Corps’ aging heavy-lift helicopters lack a "high-hot" capability, limiting where Marines can operate in Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain. To provide Marines fighting there with greater mobility, the service will deploy a squadron of V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft to Afghanistan, said Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway. “By the end of the year, you’re going to see Ospreys in Afghanistan.”
The Osprey, which had a rather troubled development period, has proven itself in combat conditions in Iraq, where it has been operating with the Marines for the past year. “It has gone from a wounded duck to a poster child, in terms of what aircraft with that leap-ahead technology can do,” Conway said, and the Osprey will greatly expand the range of missions the Marines can conduct and territory where they can operate in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has almost no road network and helicopter, soon the Osprey, is really the only way to get around faster than a marching pace.
One Osprey squadron is still in Iraq, but will be returning in a couple of months. The next Osprey squadron to deploy will be going aboard ships with a Marine Expeditionary Unit, Conway said, to test the aircraft’s ability to handle salt and sea and give crews shipboard operating experience. The Osprey was developed to lift Marines from ships offshore and rapidly carry them deep into contested territory. The squadron that follows in the deployment line up will then go to Afghanistan.
Marine units have been sent to southern Afghanistan largely because they lack a helicopter that can lift troops or cargo in what are called “high-hot” flying conditions. “We couldn’t handle the north, we couldn’t do what the Army is doing today up in RC East because of the dramatic terrain that’s up there. Our (CH) -46 has seen age and elevation and temperatures catch up with it,” Conway said, speaking at a defense industry conference in Washington on Wednesday. During the hot summer months in Afghanistan the CH-46 could only carry 5 or 6 fully loaded Marines.
The Marines must lighten up and get back to their expeditionary roots, he said. The past five years spent in Iraq as America’s second land army forced the Marines to buy heavily armored MRAP vehicles that do not fit the service’s expeditionary mission. Even personal body armor has gotten too heavy, he said, so the Marines are developing a “family of protective equipment” that will be scalable, according to the threat environment.
Conway gave a rather lukewarm endorsement to the troubled Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program, intended to provide the Marines with a replacement for their Amtrack amphibious personnel carrier. The EFV is rumored to be on a list of possible program cancellations under consideration by the Obama administration. Conway said he hoped the program would not be cancelled. “We make our best case and then it’s out of our hands.”