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The Bunker: The Army’s Tiltrotor Reversal

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This week in The Bunker: Nearly 40 years after the Army quit the Pentagon’s first-ever tiltrotor program, contending it cost too much and did too little, it has reversed course and launched the second. Holiday break starts now … back January 11!

TILTROTORING AT WINDMILLS

The Army’s change of heart

Amid the Reagan defense buildup in 1983, the Army bailed out (PDF) of the Pentagon’s first tiltrotor program, despite being awash in cash. The service felt the JVX, which eventually became the V-22, cost too much and did too little. But on December 5, 2022 the Army reversed course, opting to build its first tiltrotor — which takes off and lands like a helicopter, but cruises like a plane thanks to its tilting props — ever.

What changed? In a word, China.

The Army tapped Bell (the maker of the iconic UH-1 Huey dropped “Helicopter” from its name in 2018) to build the V-280 Valor tiltrotor to replace its 2,000 Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks. Bell beat a Sikorsky-Boeing team proposing the Defiant X compound chopper, which uses a pair of rotors mounted on a shared shaft spinning in opposite directions. Both aircraft are designed to fly faster and further than conventional helicopters. The Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft is the Army’s biggest helicopter deal in 40 years, and could lead to $70 billion in U.S. and overseas sales. The initial contract, for $232 million, is for a “virtual prototype” and will buy “zero” actual helicopters.

While the Army wasn’t impolitic enough to say it, this is all about preparing for war in the Pacific. The V-280 “will expand the depth of the battlefield by extending the reach of air assault missions and enabling ground forces to converge through decentralized operations at extended distances,” the Army said. Its “inherent reach and standoff capabilities will ensure mission success through tactical maneuver at operational and strategic distances.”

Bell has said the V-280 — the number refers to its cruising speed, in nautical miles per hour — can fly twice as far and twice as fast as the UH-60. While the Army would only say it picked the V-280 because it represented the “best value,” outsiders said its more mature design also was key.

You might think the Army chose the tiltrotor because the V-22 Osprey — the only tiltrotor the Pentagon has ever bought — works so well. But you would be wrong. The choice actually may be more about the survival of air-mobile troops than it is about battling Beijing. “Army aviation is entering into an existential crisis of sorts,” Tyler Rogoway of The War Zone wrote December 8. “The force was built for short-range conflicts in Europe and, to some degree, in the Middle East, not the vast expanses of the Pacific. … With range and speed, the Army buys back relevance.”

A tiltrotor theoretically combines the best of a helicopter with an airplane: those tilting blades give it the range and speed of a turboprop airplane. But it’s a complicated hybrid, as the V-22 has made clear. More than 15 years ago, The Bunker reported (PDF) on the V-22’s troubled development, which didn’t win it many fans (PDF) among the aircraft’s boosters. V-22 crashes have killed 51 personnel since 1992, and its troubles persist.

Jack McCain was flying Navy Black Hawks in 2014 when he wrote that the V-22 is “a notoriously unforgiving aircraft,” as this video of a botched 2017 shipboard landing makes clear. He said the V-22 costs twice as much to fly per hour as the CH-46 chopper it replaced; the V-280’s cost is all but sure to be at least double the Black Hawk’s current $3,116 hourly fare. “One of the things the Osprey does do well is long-range transportation with a light load,” added the son of the late Senator John McCain. And that’s true: the V-22 gets good marks as a point-to-point delivery van.

“Based on my research and my first-hand experience as a tiltrotor test pilot in the Marine Corps, the compound helicopter is the clear choice when it comes to choosing the configuration that best supports the Army’s mission and minimizes costs,” retired Marine Scott Trail told the Army last year. “While tiltrotors offer superior high-altitude cruise performance, that’s less relevant to future high-intensity warfare where Army aircraft will have to stay low to avoid advanced anti-aircraft defenses.”

Less than half (PDF) of the V-22 fleet can fly at any point in time, in part because there are 70 different V-22 types among the 350 flown by the Marine Corps and Air Force. This “increases the not-mission-capable maintenance rate because of the time it takes maintainers to first determine the configuration on which they are working, and then determine whether the maintenance manual procedures are current, before conducting maintenance,” according to a November report (PDF) from the Government Accountability Office.

Yet there is this lust in the military realm for the latest hot technology — be it nukes, stealth, or tiltrotors — that often clouds the wisdom of the investment. There is something quaint about buying an aircraft that can carry 14 soldiers to the doorstep of a nation with 1.4 billion people, in hopes of prevailing in a conflict on that very doorstep.

History can be a teacher, but only if the student is willing to learn. The $120 million a copy (PDF) V-22 cost nearly $43,000 an hour (PDF) to fly in 2020, a 22% hike over 2019. Yet despite the high cost to keep it airborne, the V-22 didn’t meet its availability goals in any year (PDF) over the past decade. Predictions a decade ago that more than a dozen nations were interested in buying the V-22 haven’t panned out (Japan, the lone foreign customer, is buying 17). Commercial hopes for tiltrotors (“Prospects for New Plane Seen Going Straight Up,” the Washington Post ballyhooed in 1984) remain grounded.

Vertical flight — be it helicopters or tiltrotors — has always been challenging. The failure of three of the eight Navy H-53 helicopters during the unsuccessful 1980 mission to rescue 52 Americans held hostage in Iran made the V-22 a reality. Yet, 31 years later, the U.S. military chose Black Hawks to hunt down Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistan. Only after confirming his identity at a base in Afghanistan did a V-22 play a role — ferrying his corpse to the USS Carl Vinson for burial at sea.

WHAT WE’RE READING

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

Warthogs waning?

For the first time in a decade, Congress is not blocking Air Force plans to retire some of its A-10 close air support aircraft, beloved by grunts on the ground, Jeff Schogol reported at Task & Purpose December 12.

They’re back

Long War Journal reported December 7 that 43 al Qaeda leaders have been captured or killed inside Afghanistan since 2010, despite Taliban claims to the contrary.

Tissue dispenser

Google wants to mine human tissue samples held by the U.S. military for medical research — and its own profit, James Bandler reported for ProPublica December 12. “The chief concern,” Google warned, “is keeping this out of the press.”

Thanks for dropping by The Bunker this week. Enjoy the holidays! We’ll be back on January 11.