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This article was Originally Published on Oct 08, 2006 in Volume: 5  Issue: 2

Osprey Taking Off

When the United States Marine Corps activated its Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron-263 at the New River, N.C., air station in early March, it represented a vindication of a decades-long dedication to develop the capabilities encompassed in the aircraft.

By Peter A. Buxbaum

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When the United States Marine Corps activated its Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron-263 at the New River, N.C., air station in early March, it represented a vindication of a decades-long dedication to develop the capabilities encompassed in the MV-22 Osprey, the aircraft to be flown by the squadron.

Conceived in the early 1980s, a V-22 prototype was first flown in 1989. That same year, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney proposed canceling the program, but Congressional proponents pressed for further funding and development. Multiple test-flight crashes in the 1990s and as recently as 2001, costing the lives of dozens of Marines, led a review panel to recommend that the program be continued only at a bare minimum level of procurement.

But now the Marines are scheduled to receive about 360 MV-22 Ospreys, the first of which are scheduled for combat deployment during fiscal year 2007. The Air Force Special Operations Command is planning on acquiring 50 of the CV-22 variants, with initial operating capability scheduled for 2009. And the Navy has expressed interest in 48 MV-22s of its own, with procurement likely to begin in 2010.

Better Helicopters, Better Turboprops

The V-22 Osprey is a tilt-rotor aircraft being developed in a strategic alliance between Bell Helicopter Inc. and The Boeing Company. Designed to operate as a helicopter when taking off and landing vertically, the Osprey’s two engine propellers rotate 90 degrees forward once airborne, converting the Osprey into a turboprop aircraft. The Osprey has the capacity to transport 24 combat-equipped troops or other loads and is capable of all-weather, night and low-level flight as well as inflight refueling.

“There are better helicopters out there and better turboprops, but no aircraft combines the capabilities of both,” said James Darcy, a spokesman for the Osprey program at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland. “The aircraft exists today because there are vociferous supporters of getting this aircraft in theater that made believers out of the skeptics. Internally, changes in the program over the last five or six years means that this is not the same aircraft that was operating in 2000.”

Changes to the program include the development of three block incremental improvements, a refocus of the government-contractor relationship and a validation of some of the changes made as a result of earlier mishaps. The services’ enthusiasm for the Osprey speaks to the military capabilities—primarily speed, range and flexibility—that the aircraft can bring the war

fighter. But the V-22 is not totally out of the woods. Unit costs have crept up to nearly $70 million in the case of the MV-22 and over $89 million in the case of the CV-22, a factor that could stoke congressional ire. A multiyear procurement could reduce costs to more acceptable levels, and there is strong evidence that the program office is moving in that direction, but, again, Congress must approve.

“The Osprey would enable the services to wage war in a fundamentally different way. Whether it’s worth the price is a different issue,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president for analysis at the Teal Group, a defense consultancy in Fairfax, Va. “The aircraft allows the Marines to operate from further out, making them less vulnerable to shore defenses. From a Special Operations standpoint, it allows the long-range and fast deployment of Special Forces. Arguably, the only thing that saved it was the new post-9/11 strategic environment. The subsequent conflict in Afghanistan has served as a reminder of why the military decided it needed this capability 20 years ago.”

“Had the program been canceled a few years ago,” said Raymond Jaworowski, senior aerospace analyst at Forecast International in Newtown, Conn., “the Marines would have had to start from scratch, and all the prior investment in the Osprey would have been wasted.”

Programmatic and Technical Changes

Beyond that, two additional factors have propelled the Osprey forward, according to Jaworowski: Bell-Boeing successfully overcame past difficulties, and the Marines needed to replace aging CH-46E and CH-53D helicopters. “The contractors have incorporated various improvements to the aircraft, restructured the flight test program and instituted a block upgrade effort under which MV-22s will be delivered in progressively enhanced block configurations,” he said. “The MV-22 also provides significantly increased speed and range compared to the helicopters that it is replacing in the USMC fleet.” The three block upgrades will incorporate various safety features, maintenance changes and other improvements.

For Mike Anderson, deputy program director for the Bell Boeing Program Office and a vice president of Boeing, the Osprey’s resurgence came as a result of “a realization that concerted effort had to be made to redefine the roles” of the government and the contractors and to chart a new course “forward programmatically and technically.”

The new programmatic approach has been characterized by “increased vigilance,” according to Anderson, and on a schedule that is event-driven rather than based on a calendar. “When one event was finished, then we proceeded,” he said. “It didn’t matter if it took one week or five weeks. We didn’t violate that rule.” Meanwhile a blue ribbon panel composed of academic, government and military types reviewed present and future technical issues.

The Osprey program office has also validated some of the changes made in the aircraft as a result of earlier mishaps. A 2001 crash at New River was found to involve the chafing and rupture of a hydraulic line and the failure of the system to respond appropriately, according to Darcy. “The redesigned line clearance and routing eliminated the chafing and made the lines easier to inspect,” he said. “Since the Osprey’s return to flight in 2002, there has been no recurrence of hydraulic line chafing.”

The system failure in the 2001 crash involved a software issue that has been identified and addressed, Darcy said. In the fall of 2005 an unplanned event provided proof for the software changes. “During a live-fire event, a bird struck the airplane at 240 knots, penetrated the stabilizer, and sheared through the hydraulic fitting in the tail of the aircraft,” he explained. “The aircraft did exactly what was it was supposed to do by closing off that section and retaining pressure in the rest of the hydraulic system.”

The Military Advantages

The eventual deployment of the V-22 will provide the Marine Corps and the Air Force with greater speed, range, operational flexibility and survivability under fire, according to Darcy. In the case of the Air Force’s CV-22, which will be deployed in special operations, the increased range will hinder enemy efforts to find and engage the aircraft by allowing it to avoid known threat areas. Because the aircraft comes along twice as fast and has about one-tenth the acoustic signature of a conventional helicopter, the enemy has less of an opportunity to flee the target area or to establish defenses. The Osprey can decelerate from 250 knots to a dead hover in 20 seconds, allowing special operations forces to be on top of the enemy before he has time to react.

For Marine Corps applications, the CH-46Es and CH-53Ds to be replaced by the Osprey would take 82 sorties and 12 hours to move a battalion of 975 Marines from shipboard to the objective area. The Osprey will be able to make the same move with 41 sorties and in three hours. “In Iraq, the Osprey will be able to move squads of Marines into objective areas to respond to real-time threats and events,” Darcy said. “It will also be able to medevac the wounded out in half the time, thus increasing their chances of survival.”

Cost Concerns

Increasing the chances of survival for the Osprey program will likely require a reduction of unit costs. Flyaway costs estimated to be in the $50 million range in 2001 are now approaching $70 million for the MV-22. The more expensive CV-22, now estimated at $89.1 million per unit, includes additional sophisticated systems such as terrain-avoidance radar and suites of integrated radio-frequency and infrared countermeasures. To make matters more difficult, program costs were cut by $1.1 billion in late 2005 in accordance with a report from the Pentagon’s Cost Avoidance Improvement Group (CAIG).

“It does not help that Osprey unit costs” have increased, Aboulafia noted. “That’s a mighty nice source of cash and political notoriety.”

“Without a price reduction, the Osprey could be subject to program stretchouts or procurement quantity reductions, perhaps imposed by Congress,” Jaworowski added, “even though such actions could further increase unit costs.”

The answer to the cost conundrum may come in the form of a multiyear procurement. The Pentagon has proposed a five-year procurement for fiscal years 2008 though 2012, covering 159 MV-22s and 26 CV-22s. “As Congress considers this proposal, the unit cost of the V-22 is bound to be one of the factors examined and considered by the legislators,” Aboulafia said.

Meanwhile, no change has been made to the program of record. In the absence of a multiyear procurement, the delivery schedule is likely to be extended, Bell-Boeing’s Anderson noted. “We’ve gone on record saying that we are trying to get to a $58 million airplane or less,” he said. “I think one vehicle that could achieve that goal would be a multiyear procurement. Achieving a $58-million price will be difficult without the associated benefits of a supply chain backlog and a commitment by our suppliers to reduce their prices. Without a multiyear, the supply chain is unwilling to make such a commitment because of how fragile they believe the contract is.”

The military’s consideration of the multiyear procurement was expressed in March when it issued the Bell-Boeing alliance a single-source request for proposal for a five-year V-22 procurement. “I think both the customer and Bell-Boeing are desirous of a multiyear procurement, and we’re working hard to answer the RFP,” Anderson said. “We are engaging our total supply chain.” The contractor’s answer is due at the end of August.

Anderson noted, however, that the political climate for multiyear procurements is not as favorable today as it was three or four years ago, thanks to severe budgetary constraints. “A multiyear procurement contract would help a lot,” Aboulafia said, “but politically it is controversial. Every year politicians denounce multiyear procurements, but in this case it could work wonders. If the contractors are insecure, the less likely they will be to invest in cost reductions and line improvements.” In any event, Aboulafia concluded, “the price can’t stay at $70 million.”

Aboulafia said he believes the multiyear procurement will eventually come about and that the Osprey’s survival is likely because most of the R&D bill has been paid. “Even though costs have risen horrendously,” he added, “procurement money is being found, and the V-22 will enhance U.S. military capabilities, in a variety of roles.”

“Barring a major technical problem directly traceable to tiltrotor technology,” Jaworowski concluded, “the military will likely strive to make sure the Osprey program succeeds rather than turn elsewhere.”

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