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The Bunker: Vertical disintegration

The Bunker, delivered to our subscribers Wednesdays at 7 a.m., is a newsletter from the desk of National Security Analyst Mark Thompson. Sign up here to receive it first thing, or check back Wednesday afternoon for the online version.


This week in The Bunker: as the V-22 tiltrotor assembly line comes to an end, why foreign sales designed to lower its cost never took off; Republican retro-Braggadocio; and more.

V-22 PRODUCTION WINDS DOWN

A heavier-than-hot-air machine

The V-22 tiltrotor production line is slated to shut down in 2026, given the lack of Pentagon orders for more of them in next year’s budget. Its fate illustrates the military-industrial complex’s inbred wishful thinking, and its complete lack of a bullwish detector.

The V-22 Osprey takes off and lands like a helicopter, but its tilting engines and rotors let it fly further and faster than a normal chopper. And — even though helicopters demand a lot of maintenance — they’re child’s play next to the V-22’s complexity. The bottom line has always been the same: is the juice worth the squeeze?

The program’s backers — including builders Bell and Boeing — argued that the V-22 would revolutionize both military and civilian aviation. A Bell-Boeing team helped write a 1991 NASA report(PDF) that called for creating a domestic commercial tiltrotor network based on the V-22 by 2000. It could “produce a global market demand for more than 2,600 tiltrotors, more than half of which would be exported,” it said. A smaller version of the tiltrotor, abandoned by Bell in 2011, has been in development for 20 years since its first flight. The V-22 remains the lone tiltrotor on the market. The Pentagon has bought 464 V-22s, nearly 80% of them for the Marines. The program cost some $56 billion(PDF) — $120 million a copy.

One way to lower that cost would be to get other nations to buy V-22s. There has been consistent buzz that militaries around the world have been kicking the tiltrotor’s tires: Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Canada, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Japan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom all surfaced as potential purchasers. Military and commercial sales would make each V-22 cheaper, which helped fuel exaggerated sales projections.

Following the V-22 program’s launch in 1982, the Pentagon estimated it would sell between 400 and 600 V-22s to foreign customers. “We're not talking about hundreds of countries” buying V-22s, the CEO of Textron, which owns Bell, said in 2011. “I think it's 10 to 12 countries that are going to buy these.” By 2013, the total number of projected foreign sales had dropped to 100 or fewer.

The sellers always played their cards close to their flight vest. Bell and Boeing said the V-22 had garnered “significant interest” from prospective buyers at the 2011 Dubai air show, but reports noted that “it did not identify them.” The military was just as coy. “In the very near future we could see quite a growth in the foreign military sales area,’” the Marine running the program said in 2013. According to reports, “he declined to provide details,” This bogus overseas buyers’ boom continued into this decade. “We know there are in fact a number of countries that are looking at V-22 right now,” a top V-22 official said in 2020, before declining to name them. You knew things were getting desperate when Bell began peddling the V-22 as a “VIP transport” for ultra-wealthy princes, potentates, and pooh-bahs (no known nibbles yet, perhaps because U.S. presidents aren’t allowed to fly aboard V-22s).

As the V-22 line peters out, the lone foreign sale has been to Japan. Total foreign sales: 17.

What happened to all those customers? They vanished because the V-22 costs too much and is grounded too often. The Marines’ top aviator estimated in 2012 that its cost per flight hour would settle at around $8,500 in 2012 dollars, or about $9,600 in 2020, including inflation. Last November, the Government Accountability Office reported the cost(PDF) of flying a V-22 for one hour in 2020 was $43,767, a 21.8% hike over 2019’s cost. It didn’t meet(PDF) its mission-capability goal in any fiscal year from 2011 to 2021. In 2019, only 52% of Marine V-22s were ready to fly(PDF).

The spark that generated the V-22 was the failed 1980 rescue mission into Iran to rescue 53 U.S. diplomatic captives in Tehran. “The Defense Department saw the need for an aircraft that could support long-range, high-speed missions utilizing vertical take-offs and landings,” the Navy noted in December. Yet when precisely such a mission arose in 2011, the Pentagon relied on modified UH-60 and CH-47 conventional helicopters for the strike deep inside Pakistan to bring Osama bin Laden to justice for the 9/11 terror attacks.

But that’s all yesterday’s news.

In December, the Army announced it will buy Bell’s V-280 Valor tiltrotor to replace its aging fleet of UH-60 Black Hawks. It is slated to be the Pentagon’s second production tiltrotor, after the V-22. The V-280 program could be worth up to $70 billon, the Army’s top aviation general said when he announced the deal. That includes, he added, “potential foreign military sales.”

FIGHTING THE LAST WAR

Politicians wanting to rewrite rewriting history

The Bunkerhas championed junking the names of Army posts named for Confederate traitors for nearly a decade. It was heartening to see Congress follow suit in 2021. The military has now renamed seven of the nine Army posts slated to get new identities. That’s why it was so dispiriting to hear Republican presidential candidates Governor Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence tell North Carolina GOP stalwarts that they want to change the name of North Carolina’s just-rebranded Fort Liberty back to Fort Bragg. Shortly before the Civil War, Braxton Bragg left his Louisiana plantation and the105 people he enslaved there to become one of the rebels’ worst generals.

“It’s an iconic name [so is Hitler] and iconic base [just like the American political fringes], and we’re not going to let political correctness run amok in North Carolina,” DeSantis promised a Tar Heel Republican confab June 9. “We will end the political correctness in the hallways of the Pentagon,” Pence pledged, “and North Carolina will once again be home to Fort Bragg.” Unfortunately for the craven candidates, Congress has mandated stripping names honoring Civil War turncoats from Army posts. The action can’t be undone by presidential whim. We already know who is going to prevail in this civil war. That makes the pandering by this pair of White House wanna-bes all the more depressing.

WHAT WE’RE READING

Here’s what has caught The Bunker’s eye recently

How shameful…

One of the missions of the U.S. Army Protective Service Battalion is to shield top U.S. military officers, both active duty and retired, from “embarrassment,” The Intercept reported June 17.

Boyd’s insight

The late U.S. fighter pilot and strategic thinker John Boyd’s theory of “applied friction” is being deftly used by the U.S. and its allies to thwart Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Alessandra Nisch of the U.S. Navy wrote June 12 in TheStrategy Bridge.

Here we go again

The Pentagon is making tactical corrections but strategic blunders when it comes to buying its “sixth generation” fighter, Dan Grazier of the Project On Government Oversight reported June 8.

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