Foreign Policy Briefing No. 72

V-22: Osprey or Albatross?

Executive Summary

The V-22 Osprey is a tilt-rotor aircraft that takes off and lands vertically like a helicopter but flies like an airplane when its wing-mounted rotors are tilted to become propellers. Supporters of the V-22 argue that it has the operational flexibility of a helicopter but is twice as fast, can carry more troops, and has five times the range. And unlike helicopters, the V-22 can fly to its area of deployment and does not have to be transported, either by ship or by cargo aircraft. Critics contend that the Osprey is prohibitively expensive (which is why Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney tried to cancel the program in 1989) and unsafe (the V-22 program has experienced four crashes, two of which killed 23 Marines). Moreover, they argue that existing helicopters, which the services are already buying, can accomplish the same missions at considerably lower cost.

The reality is that the V-22 is only marginally more capable than helicopters in terms of speed, range, and payload but costs four to five times as much. And despite more than 15 years of development and $12 billion spent, the Osprey is still in a test phase and nowhere near ready for operational deployment. Instead of admitting that the V-22 program has failed and using the money to buy proven helicopters for the same missions, the Marine Corps, with considerable help from Congress, has kept the program alive—continually trying to fix various problems. But at least one problem—vortex ring state (VRS)—can never be fixed or eliminated. And “flying around” the VRS problem by slowing the descent rate of the V-22 makes the Osprey more vulnerable than helicopters (despite claims that it is more survivable).

In short, the V-22 Osprey is an albatross around the Pentagon’s and taxpayers’ necks. The program should be terminated.

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Charles V. Peña is senior defense policy analyst at the Cato Institute.