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Worried Murtha Checking MV-22

A retired Marine who also happens to be one of the most powerful defense lawmakers, Rep. Jack Murtha, has begun raising questions about the future of the Osprey MV-22 The chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee told our own Christian Lowe this morning that he plans to go down to Camp Lejeune in the next few weeks to do a reality check. "That's where I'm going to find out what the hell is happening," the ever-blunt Murtha said.

"The military tends to give you nothing but optimistic portrayals," he added. "They have been telling me the V-22 was doing fine." Well, not so much, as was made clear at yesterday's hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The Osprey does face "severe maintenance problems," Murtha said, adding that they are to be expected in the early stages of an aircraft's deployment.

While he said "it's just too early to know" just what to do about the aircraft, Murtha also made pretty clear that he does not think it necessary to shut down production of the MV-22, as his colleague, Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-NY), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said yesterday. "At this point we are committed and we have to go forward with the V-22," he said.

Meanwhile, the Marines began their counterattack designed to rescue the hostage MV-22. I spoke for about an hour this afternoon with Lt. Col. Rob Freeland, an Osprey pilot with about 1,000 hours on the plane.

He made it very clear that the Marines are doing everything they can to bring down maintenance costs. The GAO report presented at yesterday's hearing claimed the current cost per flight hour of the "MV-22 today is over $11,000—more than double the target estimate and 140 percent higher than the cost for the CH-46E." Freeland said the flying hour cost for the B model -- the plane that is flying in combat -- is closer to $9,700 and will come down over the next two to four years as the Marines implement a range of engineering change orders and craft a maintenance contract.

Among the engineering changes the Marines have recently made to save money, Freeland listed infrared suppressor panels. "We used to replace those at $110,000 a piece. That’s because we didn’t expect them to break," he said. Now the service is repairing them for $10,000 per unit. In addition, they have developed $10,000 repair procedures for flaperons that they used to replace $280,000 a pop. And Coanda valves will be repaired for $5,000 instead of replacing them for $27,000.

"We know we are on a path that will get us there," to lower maintenance costs, he said. The performance based maintenance contract currently being negotiated will lead to the longest lasting and most substantial savings over time, he predicted. Due to be signed in 2010, that contract should start showing substantial savings after three years.

There was one other major issue that has dogged the Marines before and during yesterday's hearing -- just how many Ospreys actually fly. Here's the service's breakdown. Of the 94 aircraft looked at on 3 June by the committee, 48 are Block B, 29 are Block A, and 17 are pre-Block A.

There are 48 Block B aircraft -- 47 on June 3. Those are the planes flying day to day.

Of the 17 pre-Block A, one is a developmental test plane, two were destroyed in the 2000 crashes, six have been turned into trainers, one was sent to the Air Force, two are being modified to a Block B configuration, and five are in storage. Those storage aircraft are pre-Block A aircraft. The Marines say they were going to be modified to Block B, but decided against that because the costs were just too high. They will probably be turned into trainers.

Of the 29 Block A's, nine are being modified to the Block B variant.

Folks who believe there is a Hangar of Shame with dozens of planes in it will be disappointed to learn that, according to Freeland, those five aircraft are the only ones in some sort of storage. Occasionally, a single part does get cannibalized from them but they are by no means being stripped for parts to keep the fleet flying, he said.

Now we wait for Murtha's visit.

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