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The V-22 Osprey’s range and speed, the twin talents of the aircraft most heavily promoted by the U.S. Marine Corps, are revealing themselves in Afghanistan, as readiness and reliability numbers begin to climb steadily throughout the fleet.
Lt. Gen. George Trautman, deputy commandant for aviation, says the level of hostile action experienced by the V-22s in Afghanistan is slightly higher than in Iraq. He calls Afghanistan “a different fight. There’s more kinetic work to be done.” Yet he takes exception to those who criticized the aircraft’s performance in Iraq. “Uninformed critics said we babied the aircraft [there],” he says, noting that the V-22 primarily ferried passengers and cargo, the primary mission of assault-support aircraft. “Because peace broke out, it didn’t do much in the way of [flying] into the heart of enemy assaults.”
In Afghanistan however, the Osprey has flown several combat missions, one in support of Special Operations Command. “Just a couple of aircraft in the middle of the night, [flew directly] into the enemy stronghold,” says Trautman. “It was a complete mission success.”
Additionally, during major operations in Now Zad, in the Helmand Province, Marine Corps’ Ospreys arrived from different directions at 3 a.m. “with speed and range the enemy didn’t expect,” Trautman says. “The Osprey was the most important participant in getting a reinforced company into that town in short order.” More important, the Osprey flew “two loads in the time it took the CH-53 to do one.”
The aircraft has also been beefed up recently with an all-quadrant gun, which rolls on and off. There are five guns in theater for 10 V-22s, and Trautman anticipates more in the future.
Marine Corps senior leadership has been building its case against V-22 critics for decades. With operations in Afghanistan clearly demonstrating the flexibility of the aircraft in combat, the task stateside is to continue doggedly chipping away at low reliability and readiness numbers.
These efforts are starting to yield results. The Osprey’s readiness rate has hovered at about 62% for months, but operations in Afghanistan have seen that number rising steadily, according to Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway, who cites numbers in the 70-80% range. “It’s on that trajectory” to 90%, he claimed enthusiastically at the Pentagon last month.
Trautman, who is tracking V-22 readiness rates across the entire fleet, says Block B aircraft are at 65%. “We can trend up to the 70s [percent range] with aggressive sparing.”
The goal for the Marines is “to drive home operational readiness and mission dependability,” says V-22 program manager Col. Greg Masiello. “My top three initiatives are simple: availability, affordability and execution.”
Both Trautman and Masiello push constantly for improvement, leaning on the Bell-Boeing manufacturing team to drive more efficiency into the maintenance process and support increased depot-level work by the Marines. Masiello calls it “a full-court press on readiness and reduction in cost,” with a focus on the overall fleet, not just operational aircraft.
“We spend lots of time putting plans in place,” Masiello says. “It takes discipline and tenacity to make sure we’re executing to plan.” He is looking beyond the current contract to a second multi-year contract. “The time to do that is now,” he insists, noting that thinking strategically, and garnering support for future efforts will pay off down the road. “I need to continue to purchase [the V-22] and provide stability in the industrial base and in fielding the aircraft.”
Topping Masiello’s wish list is a new, fully instrumented test aircraft—an unusual, and unusually urgent, request.
“People ask why I’m prioritizing a developmental test aircraft” for an aircraft that has already been fielded, says Masiello. The program office, based at NAS Patuxent River, Md., already has one structural test aircraft in the hangar, but it is the No. 8 airplane. “It’s the oldest aircraft we have flying,” Masiello says. “And it’s exorbitant to operate,” costing about 330 maintenance man-hours per flight hour.
Why is a test aircraft so important at this stage in the V-22’s service life? Block C modifications are already underway, several new squadrons are being stood up stateside—MV-22s at Miramar, Calif., and CV-22s at Cannon AFB, N.M.—and the aircraft is flying at high tempo in Afghanistan. “We’re broadening the footprint of the program operationally,” Masiello says. “That brings some challenges to make sure we have the right support across the nation and the globe.”
Masiello’s primary focus for today’s fleet is building “a robust capability throughout our operating bases” and for deployed aircraft.
An up-to-date test article would provide the opportunity to field future aircraft with properly tested advanced capabilities. The services should know how best to exploit all the V-22’s capabilities today, Masiello says. Sometimes, he notes, “we don’t make huge changes on the aircraft, we tweak the software. Testing [software] on an instrumented aircraft tells me” if there are going to be any second-order effects that might require changes before being sent out to the fleet.
Looking much further down the road, a modernized test aircraft would eventually prove helpful in mapping out a service life-extension program (SLEP) for the V-22, Masiello says. “We need structural testing done . . . and envelope expansion” for high-altitude operations.
A new instrumented aircraft package costs $65 million, according to Masiello. He has put in a request for an Osprey test platform, but recognizes that a tight budget may limit his options, and says he hopes not to feel an “adverse impact” from the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review. Despite that, Masiello says an instrumented test aircraft is essential. “I believe it has to be done, and we’ll continue to champion the case.”
Throughout the fleet, Masiello says, he wants to ensure “we’re not addressing only new capabilities, but [examining] other inherent benefits to retrofitting [new capabilities] and prioritizing” which aircraft will receive the upgrade. As the fleet grows, so does the bill to maintain and upgrade it. Masiello says he has met with Bell-Boeing on reducing costs. “We’re making sure we set goals,” he continues. “We don’t target specific things like [operations in] Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s about the fleet in general.” The entire fleet, he adds, should always be “ready for combatant commanders to use where and when they need it.”
Trautman has had his own conversations with Bell-Boeing, with an eye to building aircraft readiness directly into the contract. “The key is getting contractual arrangements exactly right,” he says, “and allowing the contracts to catch up to the way the V-22 is actually performing.” One result of his efforts: in January, Bell-Boeing will sign a firm, fixed-price contract for performance-based logistics with the Marines.
“This is a very long program in development, but a very new aircraft in operational use,” Masiello says. “We’re learning every day what will help us mature it.”
Photo: US Navy