After the fourth crash of the V-22 Osprey tilt‐rotor aircraft last month, Marine Corps Commandant James Jones asked to postpone indefinitely a decision on whether to approve full‐rate production of the aircraft. He also called for a blue‐ribbon panel to investigate the aircraft’s cost, safety and performance.
These steps are overdue. As secretary of Defense under President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney opposed the Osprey. Today, the facts clearly show that this $40‐billion defense albatross should be loosed from the taxpayers’ necks.
The V-22 is an aircraft that takes off like a helicopter, adjusts its propellers and then flies like a normal fixed‐wing aircraft. It is built primarily to transport Marines (or their light equipment) inland from ships off the coast during an amphibious assault. Each Osprey can transport up to 24 Marines or 15,000 pounds of equipment. It flies faster than the aging medium‐lift helicopters (C‐46s) now used for such missions. This makes the aircraft somewhat less vulnerable to enemy fire. Also, the V-22 can fly greater distances than helicopters without refueling.
Unlike helicopters, which take up space on airlift aircraft and sealift ships while being moved to distant theaters, the V-22’s longer range allows it to self‐deploy. But those added capabilities make V‐22s substantially more expensive than helicopters. On average, each Osprey is about $80 million–several times that of a helicopter. As costs have increased, the planned number of aircraft has dwindled to 360 for the Marine Corps (the Air Force and Navy together may buy a total of 100 aircraft for special operations forces and search and rescue).
But the V-22, though faster than many helicopters, is not especially swift, survivable or efficient and may not be safe. The Osprey’s enhanced survivability when compared with helicopters has been exaggerated. According to Defense Department officials’ testimony before Congress and a study commissioned by the Pentagon, the V-22 is more survivable than helicopters with similar countermeasures only when under attack from small‐arms fire. In addition, compared to the slower–but less expensive–CH-53 helicopter, the V-22 cannot carry heavy weapons or large quantities of supplies that would be needed early in the battle. Even if the Osprey survives and successfully transports Marines inland into enemy territory, the lightly armed Marines may have a difficult time surviving until reinforced with the CH-53’s heavy cargo.
In addition, a November 2000 report by the Pentagon’s own chief weapons tester found that the Osprey was not operationally suitable because of its marginal reliability and excessive maintenance and logistics requirements. Yet the most important question may be whether the Marine Corps can afford the high‐priced aircraft. During the years when the Corps plans to buy the V-22, it also plans to buy the joint strike fighter to replace the AV-8B and F/A-18 tactical combat aircraft. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the peak annual combined spending on the V-22 and joint strike fighter would be $5.5 billion–about five times the current budget for Marine Corps combat aircraft.
The V-22 should not enter full‐rate production. Instead, a cheaper alternative discussed in 1997 by the budget office should be adopted. Rather than continuing production of the V-22, more of the less‐expensive CH-53 heavy‐lift helicopters might be produced. These helicopters can carry more troops than the V-22. Alternatively, the Marines could buy the Army Blackhawk helicopter for a fraction of the cost of the V-22.
The small number of V‐22s already purchased might be used for specialized missions in which heavy equipment is not needed; for example, search and rescue or special operations, such as rescuing hostages.
President Bush’s defense advisers complain that the Pentagon is buying more aircraft than it can afford. In addition, the Bush‐Cheney ticket ran on a program of skipping a generation of weapons. The Osprey is a prime candidate for one of the weapons to skip. Cheney now has another chance to help kill the bird he valiantly, but unsuccessfully, tried to terminate a decade ago.