After the fourth crash of the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft last month,Marine Corps Commandant James Jones asked to postpone indefinitely adecision on whether to approve full-rate production of the aircraft. He alsocalled for a blue-ribbon panel to investigate the aircraft's cost, safetyand performance.
These steps are overdue. As secretary of Defense under President Bush, VicePresident Dick Cheney opposed the Osprey. Today, the facts clearlyshow that this $40-billion defense albatross should be loosed from thetaxpayers' necks.
The V-22 is an aircraft that takes off like a helicopter, adjusts itspropellers and then flies like a normal fixed-wing aircraft. It is builtprimarily to transport Marines (or their light equipment) inland from shipsoff the coast during an amphibious assault. Each Osprey can transport up to24 Marines or 15,000 pounds of equipment. It flies faster than the agingmedium-lift helicopters (C-46s) now used for such missions. This makes theaircraft somewhat less vulnerable to enemy fire. Also, the V-22 can flygreater distances than helicopters without refueling.
Unlike helicopters, which take up space on airlift aircraft and sealiftships while being moved to distant theaters, the V-22's longer range allowsit to self-deploy. But those added capabilities make V-22s substantiallymore expensive than helicopters. On average, each Osprey is about $80million--several times that of a helicopter. As costs have increased, theplanned number of aircraft has dwindled to 360 for the Marine Corps (the AirForce and Navy together may buy a total of 100 aircraft for specialoperations 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 enhancedsurvivability when compared with helicopters has been exaggerated. Accordingto Defense Department officials' testimony before Congress and a studycommissioned by the Pentagon, the V-22 is more survivable than helicopterswith similar countermeasures only when under attack from small-arms fire. Inaddition, compared to the slower--but less expensive--CH-53 helicopter, theV-22 cannot carry heavy weapons or large quantities of supplies that wouldbe needed early in the battle. Even if the Osprey survives and successfullytransports Marines inland into enemy territory, the lightly armed Marinesmay have a difficult time surviving until reinforced with the CH-53's heavycargo.
In addition, a November 2000 report by the Pentagon's own chief weaponstester found that the Osprey was not operationally suitable because of itsmarginal reliability and excessive maintenance and logistics requirements.Yet the most important question may be whether the Marine Corps can affordthe high-priced aircraft. During the years when the Corps plans to buy theV-22, it also plans to buy the joint strike fighter to replace the AV-8B andF/A-18 tactical combat aircraft. According to the Congressional BudgetOffice, the peak annual combined spending on the V-22 and joint strikefighter would be $5.5 billion--about five times the current budget forMarine Corps combat aircraft.
The V-22 should not enter full-rate production. Instead, a cheaperalternative discussed in 1997 by the budget office should be adopted. Ratherthan continuing production of the V-22, more of the less-expensive CH-53heavy-lift helicopters might be produced. These helicopters can carry moretroops than the V-22. Alternatively, the Marines could buy the ArmyBlackhawk helicopter for a fraction of the cost of the V-22.
The small number of V-22s already purchased might be used for specializedmissions in which heavy equipment is not needed; for example, search andrescue or special operations, such as rescuing hostages.
President Bush's defense advisers complain that the Pentagon is buyingmore aircraft than it can afford. In addition, the Bush-Cheney ticket ran ona program of skipping a generation of weapons. The Osprey is a primecandidate for one of the weapons to skip. Cheney now has another chance tohelp kill the bird he valiantly, but unsuccessfully, tried to terminate adecade ago.