by Stephen H. Baker
Several U.S. commanders have recently said they could use the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft in Aghanistan. The V-22 is not available in Afghanistan for one reason: because it has been in full-scale development for 16 years but still hasn't proven it can perform its missions safely and effectively.
In order to prove it can do that, it will have to change course and start performing some realistic operational tests.
Four V-22 test aircraft have crashed: No one was killed in a 1991 crash; an accident in 1992 killed seven Marines; a third in April 2000 killed 19; and in December 2000, four Marines were killed, including the most senior Osprey test pilot. Since then, a $25 million inspection program has determined the V-22 is safe enough to restart the developmental flight-test program. That testing is scheduled to start May 9 and should last for at least two years.
The Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review stresses the importance of light, fast-moving forces that can be projected deep into enemy territory. The commander-in-chief of Central Command, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, stated at a February hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee that a system with the advertised speed and range of the V-22 tiltrotor would have aided his Marines and Special Forces in Afghanistan. Air Force Gen. Charled Holland, commander-in-chief of U.S. Special Operations Command, told the same panel last month: "We feel very strongly we need tilt-rotor technology; we need the technology that comes with the CV-22."
If the program were not 10 years behind schedule due to developmental problems, the V-22 just might have been a major performer in Operation Enduring Freedom. But right now, no one has a clue if the V-22 can ever do its job.
The defense secretary's latest operational test report on the V-22, in December 2000, stated that the Osprey is operationally effective but not suitable, citing a host of issues regarding technological readiness. As the Operational Test and Evaluation Commander for the Navy from 1995 through 1999, the major concern I had regarding the early operational assessments of the V-22 was the lack of realistic operational testing.
Today, that concern remains.
Since its entry into full-scale development in 1986, operational testing of the V-22 has not been adequate. Several groups — blue ribbon panels, the General Accounting Office and an independent NASA/DoD panel assigned to examine tiltrotor tachnology — have scrutinized the V-22 schedule delays, cost increases and preformance problems. One common thread among the studies: a worry about the lack of operational testing.
The Bush administration's fiscal 2003 defense budget asks for $2 billion to continue V-22 production, incuding $497 million to correct technical problems and conduct further testing. Since 1983, the Pentagon has obligated approximately $14 billion to develop and build 61 V-22s. However, a tremendous amount of work still needs to be done before we will be sure the V-22 can safely do its job.
First, the "vortex ring state" is a problem that involves potential stalling of the plane's side-by-side rotors and consequential rolling of the aircraft when turning sharply or stopping quickly. This anomaly is a significant flight-safety issue. The Pentagon needs to better understand the safe flight envelope, vortex ring state and stall characteristics during pull-up and other sharp maneuvers. (The NASA panel also emphasized these issues).
Further, the planned changes to the V-22's flight control software, cockpit displays and the redesign of the engine nacelles are major modifications that will require a substantial amount of time testing. About three dozen aircraft will have to be retrofitted with these changes once the fixes themselves are validated.
There also is little knowledge of how the V-22 is going to operate with other V-22 on amphibious ships. Similarly, the V-22 is supposed to be able to operate on and off amphibious ships in mixed fleets with helicopters and other aircraft. However, such maneuvers have never been tried in operational testing. Such testing is important because problems could arise from the interaction of the V-22's rotors with other aircraft.
Finally, the capability for a V-22 to land in an austere environment such as on unprepared runways or hover over landing or drop zones is another important unknown issue. "Brownouts" from downwash in desert or dusty conditions have been a contributing cause of several recent helicopter mishaps in Afghanistan. Yet the downwash from a V-22 can be considerably more than that caused by current helicopters — the Air Force special operations MH-53J Pavelow III, the Marine Corps CH 53 Super Stallion heavy-lift helicopter and CH-46E Sea Knight medium-lift chopper. The Marines already know that the cockpit seals have to be fixed on the V-22; in early flight tests, dust coming into the cockpit sometimes got so thick that even reading the instrument panel was a problem.
The Pentagon should view the upcoming V-22 testing as sink-or-swim. This time around, when the Osprey is finally looked at by the independent operational testers, it is essential that the services be given the time and latitude to test the V-22 in the most realistic operating environments available, and with a fleet-representative version of the aircraft. The previous attitude of cutting corners is a recipe for failure.
What's more, Pentagon acquisition chief E.C. "Pete" Aldridge has another concern to deal with in evaluating the V-22's future: cost. In 1986, a single V-22 was estimated to cost $24 million, with 923 aircraft on the order books. The current Selected Acquisition Report made public earlier this month calls for building 458 Ospreys for $46.2 billion — or more than $100 apiece. That per-copy estimate is up $15.8 million from three monthsbefore, an 18.5 percent hike.
The final unit cost of a V-22 is impossible to predict, however, because of all the technical questions yet unanswered. Testing and modifications will take time, likely resulting in schedule delays that inevitably drive up per-unit cost. Late last month, Bell Helicopter and Boeing were awarded another contract, this one worth $770 million, to build 11 more MV-22 Ospreys.
If the aircraft, after this next period of testing, cannot meet the mission or safety of flight requirements established — or the costs are finally acknowledged to be prohibitive — then the extremely painful decision will have to be made: Cancel a program that has been struggling for over two decades and look at the alternatives.
The services already have looked at other options for fulfilling the V-22's assigned mission, such as the European Augusta Westland EH-10 helicopter and upgrades to Sikorsky's UH-60 Blackhawk, CH-53 Sea Stallion and Sikorsky's newest medium-lift helicopter, the S-92. They should keep those options ready for Mr. Aldridge's review.