One of the busiest deployed units in the Marine Corps may make do with half as many MV-22B Ospreys to free up the tiltrotor aircraft for other missions, the commander of Marines in the Middle East said this week.
Lt. Gen. William Beydler, commander of Marine Corps Forces Central Command, said senior officials are considering deploying the next six-month rotation of Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Central Command with just six Ospreys, instead of the squadron of 12 the task force now has.
"That's trying to balance competing requirements across the force and make sure we have those capabilities at the ready for something that emerges that we don't anticipate," Beydler told Military.com in a July 8 interview.
The task force has elements in six countries across the Middle East, with a special focus on Iraq, where Marine detachments provide security and support at bases in Al Asad and Al Taqaddum and presence at the embassy in Baghdad.
The Ospreys attached to the unit have frequently been on standby for prospective tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel [TRAP] missions as U.S. and coalition fighters conduct air strikes on Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
A decision on whether to halve the number of Ospreys that deploy to the Middle East is expected to take place ahead of the next rotation's deployment, late this year or early next. The Marines' Middle East task force would be the second unit to lose Ospreys as the Corps stretches its aviation resources.
In April, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford told a Senate panel the Corps' crisis response force for Europe and Africa would also lose half its squadron.
"I'm not happy that we had to reduce the number from 12 to six," he said in an April 27 hearing. "That does reduce the flexibility … we were balancing risk on both sides."
The Marines' Middle East unit does have an advantage: It can borrow Ospreys from forward-deployed Marine expeditionary units that provide additional presence in the 5th Fleet and supporting the Islamic State fight.
The North Carolina-based 26th MEU recently returned from a deployment to the region, during which it sent a battery of artillery Marines into Iraq to stand up a fire base near Makmur. The 22nd MEU, also from North Carolina, has since deployed to the region.
"One of the things we're worked real hard on is to make those two separate organizations work very, very closely together, have good communications, and interact routinely," Beydler said. "Our land-based Special Purpose MAGTF MV-22s recently deck-qualed on amphibious ships. So they move back and forth."
The versatility of the Osprey, which can take off and land like a helicopter and fly like a plane, has contributed to the high demand for the aircraft.
In 2015, Marine officials said the mission-capable rate for the V-22 was 62 percent for stateside aircraft and 71 percent for deployed squadrons. Marine Corps spokesman Maj. Paul Greenberg said then that the Osprey had flown more than 178,000 flight hours between 2007 and 2015.
"A combination of incomplete squadron transitions, reduced funding for maintenance and spare parts, and maintenance depot backlogs have led to an overall shortage of aircraft for the Marine Corps to train and deploy with," Greenberg said.
Aviation concerns aside, Beydler said the task force is seeing success in supporting Iraqi troops in the fight against IS militants.
"[Islamic State fighters are] demoralized and I think there will be some opportunities to accelerate their demise and the Marines will be ready to support that in whatever [U.S. Central Command Commander Army Gen. Joseph Votel] asks us to do," he said.