Osprey: Capabilty versus Cost – Is it really worth it?

Osprey V22 Afghanistan

Since its inception, the MV-22 Osprey has generated a significant amount of controversy, especially during its protracted development. This development phase was significantly longer, at times tragic, and the costs were somewhat insurmountable, even by UK MOD procurement standards.

However, now that the aircraft has actually been fielded in Iraq and Afghanistan, the question can now be asked, is it any good and was all the pain, suffering and cost worth it?

It is easy to understand the reasoning behind the United States Marine Corps requirement for a tilt-rotor transport aircraft, given the benefits that it offered over the seemingly obsolete helicopter. Now, over twenty years and an eye-watering $27 billion later, has that realisation come true?

Although the Osprey seemed to offer a quantum leap in capability, during its development phase it developed a nasty habit of falling out of the sky and killing its occupants. Despite fielding and thoroughly testing a tilt-rotor X-Plane prototype, the XV-15, the manufacturers found out the hard way that they were entering relatively unchartered waters with regards to control, stability and aerodynamics. Even after its introduction into operational service, it has still had a number of mishaps and close calls, although on the whole, these tend to be connected with the earlier Block A versions and luckily there have been no casualties.

The advantage that the Osprey offers is that it can fly faster and higher than a normal helicopter, by virtue of its tilt-rotor. It can therefore get into a landing zone, drop its troops, take off and get to a safe altitude significantly quicker than any known helicopter in current production. This sounds great on paper, but by the virtue of its incredulous $27 billion development budget, it beggars the question, would it not have been cheaper to utilise an existing helicopter and buy more AH-1Z Viper helicopter gunships or attack aircraft to escort them into the LZ and out again?

The argument that the Osprey is used for amphibious assault is appreciable, in that it allows the fleet to remain out of harm’s way many miles offshore, and well out of the range of enemy artillery. But when used in Iraq, or a possible deployment to Afghanistan, where’s the fleet? After the initial invasion and the beach has been secured, the ‘off shore’ requirement becomes somewhat nonsensical. This is also apparent with regards to the USMC requirement for large and armoured amphibious assault vehicles. Once these behemoths have crawled up the beach and conquered the beachhead it becomes a very large target, especially when it begins to move further inland and into markedly different terrain; for this, smaller more practical vehicles are required. Therefore, although the USMC may demand something bespoke for their needs, what they really need is a vehicle with a better all-round combat capability, as the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated.

With the Osprey, what the USMC has effectively got is a very expensive STOL aircraft/helicopter hybrid, when either the STOL aircraft or the helicopter would be just as well suited and more economically priced. The tragic off-shot of the Osprey purchase isn’t just the deaths of those killed in its development, it’s the fact that the helicopter was destined to replace the CH-46 Sea Knight, which is still in service and will be for some time to come. Because the Osprey was the Sea Knight’s one and only proposed replacement, politics has dictated that it shouldn’t be replaced by anything else other than the Osprey. This situation has been exasperated by the over-runs of the development period and costs. Fortunately, in some instances, the Sea Knight has been replaced, but only in the US Navy’s vertical replenishment role. The US Navy has had the common sense and foresight to replace it with a version of the Sikorsky Blackhawk called the MH-60S Knighthawk.

This means that the CH-46 is still used for combat missions by the USMC, even when the US Navy concluded it was well past its retirement age. Most helicopters are deemed at the end of their useful and economic lives when they are between twenty-five or thirty years of age, depending on the type. The last USMC CH-46’s left the production line as new builds in 1971, although many were subsequently upgraded to CH-46E standard after that date. This means the youngest airframes in the Sea Knight fleet are thirty-eight years old. However, these aircraft are mere whipper-snappers if you consider the fact that many CH-46A’s were upgraded to CH-46E’s, the ‘A’ version entering service in 1964. This equates to a staggering age of forty-five years; a large proportion of which is spent in a highly corrosive, salt-laden environment!

The age of the aircraft also means that severe limitations have been placed upon it with regards to manoeuvring and lift capability, restricting the capabilities of the CH-46 fleet even further. As an aside and with hindsight being a wonderful thing, these time spans mean that the USMC could’ve replaced the CH-46 in the 1980’s with a version of the Blackhawk or a new-build CH-46, and then replaced this with the Osprey after nearly two decades in service; definitely food for thought with regards to future projects.

With regards to a viable replacement, given the fact that the CH-46, or Frog as it is known in USMC parlance, is a highly regarded airframe despite its age and giving regard to the old adage ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’, the best alternative would seem to be another version of the CH-46, albeit upgraded. This would appear to be a common-sense alternative to the Osprey. As with most defence programmes, there always seems to be an alternative sat on the sidelines which seems to be as good, if not better, and the Osprey programme is no different. Boeing Vertol, who presently manufactures the Osprey in conjunction with their partners Bell, built the original CH-46. They also build its bigger cousin, the CH-47 Chinook, what Boeing Vertol did, and did with their own money, was to build a state-of-the-art CH-46 as a technology demonstrator. This demonstrator, called the Model 360, was, in essence, an all-composite ‘Super’ Sea Knight. It was significantly lighter, had ‘Fly-By-Wire’ controls, a retractable undercarriage and looked very similar to the Frog. It also shared a substantial number of proven transmission components with the Chinook.

The only major disadvantage it had was that it was slightly taller and therefore couldn’t fit in the small hanger at the back of many US Navy warships, a problem not beyond the capabilities of human ingenuity.

To highlight this singular issue, the Eurocopter Super Puma has a modified undercarriage that allows it to ‘kneel’ to allow access to the lower hangers of smaller ships.

One of the big technology leaps for the Model 360 was the use of an all-composite fuselage. At the time it was the largest, all-composite aircraft ever constructed, the design of which was subsequently used to develop the Osprey, thus laying the foundations for future aircraft development. Had the Model 360 been produced instead of the MV-22 or at least alongside it, given ten years for development it could have been in service around 2003. Allowing the additional time to become operational, the Model 360 could’ve still have been actively participating in both Iraq and Afghanistan significantly earlier and in greater numbers compared to the Osprey.

Despite its detractors, the Osprey does have its uses, once all its irksome problems are fully ironed out that is.

It is an effective troop carrier and although in the deserts of Iraq it does have a tendency to eat up spare parts, especially engines, it is a stable platform. This would make an ideal carrier-borne AEW aircraft, like the E-2 Hawkeye or a COD (Cargo On Deck) aircraft like the C-2 Greyhound, albeit an expensive alternative!

This would suit the carriers of the Royal Navy or the French navy, given the smaller stature of their ships compared to the United States. Fortunately for the manufacturers, Bell-Boeing, France and the UK are some of the few first world countries that can actually afford the basic airframe, not including the additional cost of the electronic systems. Given the high value of the Osprey in both financial terms and as a propaganda target for insurgents, the USMC cannot simply throw it thoughtlessly into harm’s way.

In a negative way, this reduces the Osprey’s role to that of a simple cargo shifter, similar to the C-27J Spartan, but in a positive way it forces the US military to question their previous tactics of flying recklessly into an unsecured Landing Zone, commonly known as a ‘hot LZ’.

The basic price of a single airframe is in the region of $90 million, a lot of dollars for simply hauling cargo. It should be noted that the Osprey can carry 24 seated troops or 32 troops nonchalantly sat on the floor, this capability is something akin to that achieved by the Douglas C-47 Skytrain (aka DC-3 Dakota), an aircraft of 1930’s vintage or the more favourably priced and contemporary Agusta Westland Merlin.

These comparisons may be unfair with regards to the Osprey, but what it does highlight is the vast cost of producing systems that are technologically groundbreaking. It is true that helicopter technology as we know it is beginning to stagnate as we reach the upper thresholds of its design capability, and we should explore alternatives that offer seemingly quantum leaps in performance, but the question we should bear in mind is ‘does the capital cost of the whole project justify the end product?’

Although the BV360 may not have offered the starship like the performance of the Osprey, it still demonstrated a quantum leap in capability over the current CH-46E. The BV360 also used a combination of new and thoroughly tested existing technology, namely the engines and transmission. This alone gives a high degree of confidence in the system as a whole and also reduces the need for exhaustive testing and development, something Osprey could only dream of. For this reason alone the BV360 should’ve been given a greater priority. On reflection, perhaps what we should be doing is taking smaller, more tentative steps, as with the Boeing Vertol 360, as opposed to going for a completely new design like the Osprey.

So, with regards to the question ‘is the Osprey any good’, the answer is definitely yes, but as to whether it was worth all the pain, suffering and cost, I’m afraid the jury’s still out.

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