Osprey in the Catbird Seat

By Lieutenant General Terry G. Robling, U.S. Marine Corps

Examples of those missions are forthcoming—but first, back to Libya: In the middle of the night, less than two hours after that F-15E crew ejected over North Africa, two MV-22Bs, along with other elements of the Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel package—including organic AV-8B Harriers, CH-53E Sea Stallions with a quick-reaction force on board, and a Marine rescue force on board the Ospreys themselves—were turning up engines on board the USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) about 130 nautical miles from the downed fliers. The Ospreys launched into the darkness and closed the objective at an average speed of more than 260 knots, supported by Marine Corps and Air Force jets aloft of the downed pilot.

Once in the objective area, one Osprey landed, recovered the downed pilot, and departed—all within 90 seconds. Twenty minutes from the time he was running for his life in hostile North Africa, the aviator was safely back in American territory on board the Kearsarge . (The other F-15E crewman was located by friendly rebel forces, who saw to his safe passage and eventual recovery.)

Proven Capabilities

Ground commanders and their Marines have seen what the Osprey can do: They have flown in the back of it, they have run down its ramp into landing zones in combat, and they have run up its ramp into the sanctuary the aircraft provides. Those Marines have one message for Marine aviation: We want more of these. They know that they can move three times as many Marines five times farther and twice as fast as they could move Marines on conventional helicopters. As they transit to the objective, those Marines are at elevations as high as 13,000 feet, out of the range of the rifles, heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades that are the weapons of the irregular fighter. The aircraft can carry 24 combat-loaded Marines to a combat radius of 325 nautical miles. By comparison, a CH-46E carrying half the available payload has a radius of 75 nautical miles.

The MV-22B is also amazingly quiet. A Marine rifle battalion commander in Afghanistan reported that as Ospreys delivering one of his companies to a raid objective spiraled down atop an enemy force, he watched startled fighters literally drop their weapons and scatter because the aircraft were right there—in the zone—before their approach was seen or heard.

In March, the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) was given the order to redeploy its Afghanistan-based Ospreys to the Mediterranean. Using their aerial refueling capability and employing organic Marine KC-130J refuelers, the six MV-22Bs self-deployed in two waves of three more than 3,000 nautical miles, flying from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean, to recover on board the Kearsarge . Those Ospreys then turned promptly to operations at sea. That sort of dynamic re-tasking is what expeditionary forces do.

The range and speed of the aircraft widen the range of possibilities not only for the kinetic fight, but also across the range of military operations. When a patient on board the Kearsarge required medical support beyond the ship’s capability, for example, officers realized that the nearest site that could provide the required services was an onshore facility 500 nautical miles distant. A section of Ospreys was tapped to perform the mission, because, in the words of the MEU commander, “The V-22 is the only aviation asset that can bridge the long ship-to-shore expanse.”

In another instance, Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 263, deployed in the USS Bataan (LHD-5), flew a casualty evacuation mission of 147 nautical miles in 37 minutes. In the words of a Bataan corpsman, “If it hadn’t been for the Osprey, there’s no way we could have gotten the patient to where she needed to be to receive the care that ultimately saved her life.”

The versatility of the platform was again illustrated in the Marine Corps’ humanitarian assistance/disaster relief role following the devastating Haiti earthquake in January 2010. The MV-22B reached multiple inland locations during one period of daylight, and again saved lives by carrying much-needed relief supplies and medical personnel into remote and isolated areas of the country.

Safety and Survivability

The following month the V-22 program as a whole—both Marine Corps and Special Operations Command airframes—exceeded 100,000 total flight hours. More important, the MV-22B crossed that milestone while maintaining a tremendous safety record: it had the lowest Class A flight-mishap rate of any Marine Corps tactical rotorcraft for the decade of January 2001–January 2011.

The Osprey’s performance record in Iraq from September 2007 to March 2009 is telling. During 18 months of combat operations the aircraft completed every assigned mission, and it did so flying faster, farther, and safer than its legacy counterparts. Despite being the target of enemy small arms, rocket-propelled grenades, and shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles on numerous occasions, none of more than 40,000 total passengers was injured in almost 9,000 hours of flight.

Likewise, in Afghanistan the MV-22B has been the target of small arms and RPG fires—and in some cases hit. In every instance, the aircraft has been able to safely continue and conclude its flight with no injuries to crew or embarked personnel.

Challenges and Opportunities

The MV-22B reached operational capability in June 2007. On the heels of that significant event it was decided to deploy the Osprey to war, fully one year before its planned material support date. That decision put additional stress on development of a logistics support infrastructure, but with the Marine Corps simultaneously committed in two conflicts there was no good reason to hold back this revolutionary capability from supporting those forces in combat. Simply put, it was the right thing to do.

As with any new aircraft, the Osprey had its share of setbacks over the course of development, including fatal flight-test crashes that caused many to call into question the program’s future. Far more commonplace, however, were the sort of logistical and technical hurdles routinely encountered in such projects, and especially when making a leap in aviation technology as we did with this aircraft. For example, in some cases engineering predictions for Osprey component service-life were inaccurate, problems that began being corrected once actual in-service data became available.

It is instructive to keep in mind, too, that although the program began in 1981, the V-22 community has flown nearly half of its total flight hours in just the past two years. Against a backdrop of rapidly increasing flight hours and multiple combat deployments—through which the aircraft has operated under the most rigorous environmental extremes—the Osprey is meeting the challenge. Aided by on-time and on-budget deliveries of aircraft since 2007, Ospreys are replacing the legacy CH-46E helicopter at a rate of two squadrons per year; the transition should be complete in 2017.

Critics of the V-22 frequently focus on procurement and operating costs. While it is true that the Osprey costs more than a legacy helicopter to buy and operate on a per-unit basis, the discussion shouldn’t end there. Operating experience with the Osprey has validated the multitude of studies undertaken during its development. Flying “twice as fast” and “five times as far” with “three times the payload” are not simply snappy talking points. They are direct expressions of value gained from every dollar spent procuring and operating the aircraft. Given current operating costs, the Osprey carries its payload more economically—on a dollar-per-passenger-mile basis—than any legacy rotorcraft currently in the Marine Corps inventory. Beyond the importance of cost and value of a military aircraft, however, is the protection afforded our nation’s most valuable assets, the passengers and crew. In the Osprey, they travel well above the range of the majority of currently utilized threat weapons, and therefore are safer than when carried by lower and slower helicopters.

Future Operations and Possibilities

In 1988, then-Commandant Al Gray asserted that “if I am a MEU commander off of North Carolina, I want every bad guy from Manhattan to Miami to be nervous.” What he meant was he wanted to be able to move swiftly hundreds of miles and then go over or around a defending force—or simply go where it was not. Aided by the capabilities of the MV-22B (and its sister aircraft the CV-22) the quantum leap in capability that he envisioned is now reality.

Today the United States faces a difficult fiscal environment. With declining defense budgets looming, a fresh, fact-based look at our tactical mobility requirements across the services may be in order, with an eye toward leveraging existing, proven, and currently fielded assets to fill current and projected operational gaps. In the long view, we have only begun to scratch the surface of exploiting the capabilities of the MV-22B. Its demonstrated multi-role capability may make this aircraft a potential candidate for other DOD and coalition requirements. The Osprey’s unparalleled success in the harsh deserts and mountains of Iraq and Afghanistan, the sea-based execution of the Libyan recovery mission, and its long-range self-deployment capabilities make it the aircraft best suited to effectively enter an equally demanding arena in the future—the ongoing battle of the budget.

Aviation in the Marine Corps exists—in the words of its first flier, Lieutenant Colonel Alfred A. Cunningham—to “assist the troops on the ground to successfully carry out their missions.” Marine Corps expeditionary operations will always center on the MAGTF, and Marine aviation therefore is inherently naval, expeditionary, and supportive to a ground force as part of a combined-arms team. Better technology is driving better tactics to provide lethality and battlefield mobility to that warfighter. The Osprey is just such a successful combining of tactics and technology. It will not be just a basic component of Marine Corps aviation; it will be the keystone of tomorrow’s air-ground task forces.

Lieutenant General Robling is Marine Corps Deputy Commandant for Aviation. He has commanded at the squadron, air group, air wing, and Marine Expeditionary Force levels. He has accumulated more than 5,200 hours in both tactical jet and rotary-wing aircraft, primarily in the F-4 Phantom and F/A-18 Hornet.


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