The Osprey Factor

Aug. 1, 2001
Even after two horrific crashes in a single year and years of political debate over its fitness to survive, the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor still shapes up as the backbone of Air Force Special Operations Command’s future force structure. And USAF thinks the aircraft will only grow in importance in years ahead.

AFSOC gives top priority to the CV-22, the special operations variant of the Marine MV-22. Its support stems from two intertwined factors:

Existing AFSOC helicopters are approaching the end of their useful lives and, in many cases, are no longer able to meet mission requirements. The CV-22 is designed to replace AFSOC’s aging MH-53 Pave Low helicopters, used for clandestine insertion and exfiltration missions. The Pave Lows were developed more than three decades ago and long have been out of production. Today, the MH-53 cannot meet several Special Operations Forces mission requirements, a factor that restricts how US Special Operations Command missions are planned and executed.

The CV-22 promises to bring major advances in combat capability. In fact, say advocates, it may revolutionize the way SOF missions are conducted. With higher top speed, longer range, and greater carrying capacity than today’s helicopters, the Osprey would permit SOF to undertake more missions during “one period of darkness.” Moreover, Osprey would still be able to take off and land vertically in tight spots.

However, significant design problems remain. The aircraft now is undergoing a comprehensive review and redesign of several flight-critical systems. These measures are expected to delay the CV-22’s operational use by at least two years, from 2004 to 2006.

Ultimately, the CV-22 schedule depends upon what happens with the Marine Corps’ MV-22 as the lead aircraft. MV-22 plans drive the program, not just because the Marines lead the program but also because the 360 MV-22s being purchased dwarf the AFSOC purchase of 50 CV-22s.

AFSOC expects to place the first CV-22s for training at Kirtland AFB, N.M., in 2004 and then, in 2006, form up a unit of six operational aircraft at Hurlburt Field, Fla., at which time the Air Force would declare initial operational capability. Next, AFSOC would establish a CV-22 squadron in the Pacific in 2007 and in Europe around 2008. Production would continue until 2013.

Worth the Wait

In AFSOC’s view, the CV-22 Osprey is well worth the wait, and its commanders are committed to its development. They believe the Air Force eventually will turn to the CV-22 to handle other combat missions. Said USAF Gen. Charles R. Holland, head of SOCOM: “I feel that, once we’re successful, … this airplane could compete for some of those [other] missions.”

The CV-22 was adapted from the basic Bell Boeing tilt-rotor Osprey. To make sure the USAF model is fully prepared for SOF missions, officials are adding gear such as terrain-following and terrain-avoidance radar, an advanced electronic warfare suite, high-capacity fuel tanks, and state-of-the-art avionics.

But the Osprey long has had problems. For example, Vice President Dick Cheney, when he was Secretary of Defense, tried in 1990 to kill the program outright because of its high cost and technical complexity. Yet the V-22 tilt-rotor’s woes reached altogether new heights in 2000 as a result of two multifatality crashes.

The first mishap, which occurred on April 8, 2000, took place during an operational training mission in Arizona. Nineteen Marine passengers died in the crash. On Dec. 11, 2000, another V-22 went down in North Carolina, killing four Marines. The Arizona accident was said to have stemmed from human error, but the second crash exposed weaknesses in the system itself.

The twin disasters could have doomed the program, and with it the Air Force’s plan for replacing its aging MH-53s. Before that could happen, then-Defense Secretary William Cohen ordered a comprehensive V-22 review. He created a blue-ribbon panel to investigate the entire program and make recommendations.

Cohen’s move may prove to have been the salvation of the Osprey. When the panel reported earlier this year to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, it did not call for cancellation of the troubled program, as some previously had predicted. Instead, members emphasized that the tilt-rotor had no flaws that could not be overcome with time, money, and good engineering practices.

“When considered in total,” said the panel, “the tilt-rotor-unique risks do not appear to be insurmountable nor to outweigh the [performance] enhancements” the tilt-rotor design offers. “All tilt-rotor-unique risks appear to be manageable through design modifications and operational procedures and techniques.”

Panel members were Gen. John R. Dailey, USMC (Ret.), a former Marine assistant commandant; Gen. James B. Davis, USAF (Ret.), former Pacific Air Forces commander; Eugene E. Covert, a retired MIT aerodynamics professor; and Norman R. Augustine, a retired Lockheed Martin executive.

These experts leveled harsh criticism at many aspects of the V-22 program but ultimately laid out a plan for it to move forward if–and only if–the existing, deadly design defects are corrected.

In May, the Pentagon approved changes to dangerous hydraulics lines, poorly designed engine nacelles, and defective flight software–as recommended by the panel–to ensure program viability. The panel concluded that the Pentagon should gradually resume Osprey flight operations while the modifications are being made. The Marine Corps MV-22s and USAF CV-22 flight test aircraft have been grounded since the December accident.

Panels Voice Support

The V-22 blue-ribbon panel gave Osprey supporters something more to cheer about. Its final report offered strong backing to the AFSOC claim that it needs CV-22 for future missions. In addition, the panel said the Pentagon could and should come up with more funding to ensure the CV-22 actually makes it into the AFSOC inventory in sufficient numbers.

(In late June, two of the panels chartered by Rumsfeld to review Pentagon programs and strategy also voiced their support for the V-22. The Conventional Forces and Transformation Panels found the V-22 to be a “critical” system for future missions. Other systems were not viewed as favorably.)

SOCOM cannot allow the CV-22 schedule to slip further, the blue-ribbon panel contended, because current assets are incapable of meeting future mission requirements.

In its findings, the Pentagon’s Osprey panel warned that AFSOC’s MH-53s are based on “30-year-old technology” and have “limited self-deployment capability.” Further, the Pave Lows lack the speed, range, and upgrade capability to execute future missions or meet future threats, the panel determined.

In addition, the MH-53 is out of production, a fact that deprives the Pentagon of the option of simply buying more of the same equipment to replace worn-out models. The panel noted that “SOCOM has already reduced force structure (e.g. tankers) in anticipation of receiving the CV-22” and cannot now simply do without it.

The AFSOC commander, Lt. Gen. Maxwell C. Bailey, contends that the MH-53s have “plenty of service life left in them,” but the issue for AFSOC as it waits for the CV-22 is the rising cost and mission restrictions associated with its older aircraft.

The CV-22 requirement arose as a direct result of Desert One, the failed US hostage rescue mission in Iran in April 1980. The mission to rescue the American hostages at the US Embassy in Tehran ended in the death of five airmen and three Marines when a botched refueling attempt caused a massive explosion and fire.

That fatal refueling stop was made necessary by the insufficient range of the Navy’s RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters, which were used in the rescue attempt. Normally used as airborne minesweepers, the Sea Stallions were chosen because of their superior load-carrying capability and their ability to operate from an aircraft carrier. However, they could not fly from a carrier deck in the Indian Ocean to Tehran without refueling. The task force opted to refuel them on the ground with Air Force C-130s rigged with temporary 18,000-gallon fuel bladders.

The result was a catastrophe caused by one of the choppers crashing into one of the refueling aircraft.

CV-22 advocates frequently note that the Osprey will have twice the top speed, three times the payload, and up to five times the range of existing SOF rotorcraft. This results from the Osprey’s tilt-rotor design that enables the aircraft to take off and land like a helicopter but rotate its engine nacelles forward while in flight to achieve the speed of a turboprop airplane.

The Time Factor

At a recent roundtable discussion about the V-22’s future hosted by the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C., Holland noted that when performing special operations missions, “our main concern is always time. … In today’s environment it’s harder to hide.”

The Osprey panel pointed out that “CV-22 is the only alternative that meets long-range infil/exfil [infiltration and exfiltration, or personnel evacuation] requirement within one period of darkness,” or the time from true sunset to true dawn. It is during this period that special operators do their best work.

The panel report went on, “The sensitivity of the SOCOM mission is sufficiently great to place a high premium on first-time success. Initiating an all-new development tends to exchange known challenges for unknown challenges-and there is no reason to believe [a new-start program] would cost less nor provide significantly greater capability than the V-22.”

The plan to buy 50 Air Force CV-22s for special operations missions was being stretched out even before the recent events. Last year, Holland told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that rising CV-22 costs were having an impact. He said DOD had budgeted insufficient funds in the outyears to sustain planned production and that AFSOC had to stretch out the delivery of the final aircraft from 2009 to 2012.

The Osprey is not cheap. In the Fiscal 2001 DOD budget request, the CV-22 unit procurement cost, based on production of 50 units with support and spares, came to $65.8 million. This was before the most recent modifications to the program, which will undoubtedly further raise the program cost.

Blue-ribbon panel members this year told another Senate committee that the V-22 program managers’ penchant for delaying near-term purchases, “trading aircraft” until later in the program to offset cost growth, is an indication that the program consistently has been underfunded. The V-22 program is lacking a management reserve to cover the cost of inevitable developmental challenges, the panel said.

What will the Special Operations Forces do to make up for the delays in Osprey deliveries

Holland said in May that AFSOC will have to make “minor modifications” to existing aircraft but that the Pave Low aircraft should be able to remain in service through 2012.

In his Senate testimony last year, Holland made clear the fact that SOCOM “remains totally committed to the fielding of all 50 CV-22s,” a figure which he termed “the absolute minimum necessary to meet SOF requirements.” Other Pentagon leaders, including the Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Michael E. Ryan, have also said repeatedly they remain committed to the CV-22.

Under the terms of a complex 1997 agreement, the Navy (on behalf of the Marine Corps) will cover costs of CV-22 development as part of the larger MV-22 development program, and the Air Force for its part will finance all CV-22 production costs. SOCOM is responsible for producing the unique SOF equipment needed to make the CV-22 an effective special operations aircraft.

DOD Must Improve Design

For now, no aspect of the program takes precedence over the drive to fix the Osprey’s design flaws.

Without the safety and maintenance improvements cited, the Osprey “is not ready … for operational use,” said panel member Augustine. “Not close to it.”

Augustine was emphatic about this point. “I would cut the production back to the bare minimum–and I mean bare,” while the program is revamped, he added during concluding remarks at the panel’s meeting to announce their recommendations.

The Pentagon recently determined the program needs an additional $80 million in funding this fiscal year to partially redesign the tilt-rotor and make the safety and reliability improvements nearly all observers now feel are necessary.

The $80 million would be added to Navy research, development, test, and evaluation accounts to “support initial redesign and testing efforts required to address deficiencies, logistics, flight test, and flight test support for V-22 aircraft,” according to the Pentagon supplemental request.

Senior Defense Department officials insist that the mere existence of a schedule will not drive the return of the V-22 to flight and eventually into fleet operations. The recommendations of the blue-ribbon panel will be met according to a strictly “event-driven” plan, said Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Fred McCorkle, deputy chief of staff for aviation, at a Congressional field hearing in May in Philadelphia.

The current focus on performance instead of schedule comes in response to concerns that, in the past, the program was pushed to meet schedule at the expense of adequate engineering and test. For example, a Marine Corps investigation into the most recent Osprey crash determined that performance was a secondary matter.

“Testing of the V-22 aircraft was timeline-based (driven to meet a schedule) instead of based on actual performance of the aircraft,” said the report, noting that this practice contributed to software and hydraulics defects that led to the mishap.

One Per Month

Boeing and program office officials say the minimal sustainable production rate needed to keep the Osprey production line active while the changes are being made is about “one aircraft per month.”

Keeping the production line active is critical, blue-ribbon panel members told Congress, because Osprey production quality and safety would probably be harmed if the skilled workforce now in place were to break up and scatter. Officials doubt the economic sense of halting production while changes are made to the program. This would dramatically increase costs.

Conversely, the panel also emphasized the need to keep production at a minimum to ensure that few V-22s later need to be fixed or improved.

When AFSOC has taken delivery of all 50 of its planned CV-22s, Air Force interest may not be at an end. The service already has begun to examine the possibility of other uses.

With its speed, range, and internal cargo capacity, the Osprey could be adapted to meet numerous other missions, combat and noncombat. These missions include Combat Search and Rescue, disaster relief, aerial refueling, air medical evacuation, and executive transport.

Air Combat Command, for one, thinks a V-22 variant might be just the thing to replace its HH-60 helicopters used for CSAR missions. The use of the V-22 for CSAR should reach the decision point this summer.

According to ACC, the assessment of the CV-22 as a possible CSAR aircraft “has not changed due to the current program problems. Our assessment focused on the capability the CV-22 might bring to the CSAR mission.”

Adam J. Hebert is the senior correspondent for, an Internet defense information site, and for “Inside the Air Force,” a Washington, D.C.-based defense newsletter. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Smaller Bombs for Stealthy Aircraft,” appeared in the July 2001 issue.