V-22 vertical aircraft gets rave reviews

NEW YORK — Military and industry officials rave about the V-22 tiltrotor’s performance in Afghanistan but know they need to show the aircraft is worth its high price tag. 

The Marine Corps are flying V-22 Ospreys in theater and “it’s more effective than we expected,” Maj. Gen. Jon Davis, Second Marine Corps Air Wing commander, told reporters here recently. “We have only scratched the surface with this aircraft. … “We’re doing things with the V-22 we did not plan to do.”

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The V-22 takes off vertically but can fly like a plane, allowing it to travel faster than traditional helicopters. The military is using the craft to haul teams of Marines, special operators, combat rescue personnel and cargo.

But there are questions in defense circles about whether — after years of technical delays and cost spikes —such glowing reviews will be enough to avoid future cuts as White House, Pentagon and congressional officials look for ways to trim the annual Defense budget.

Despite rave reviews from war fighters, the program is among the most expensive at the Pentagon.

Each Osprey has a flyaway cost of $65 million. The Pentagon already has spent over $30 billion on the V-22 program, according to the Congressional Research Service.

In its 2012 budget request, the Defense Department is seeking another $3 billion to buy Marine Corps and Air Force special-operations versions of the V-22. 

The Pentagon intends to buy around 450. The majority would go to the Marine Corps, with the Air Force slated to buy around 50.

Those kinds of cost figures lead many fiscal hawks to place the V-22, being built by Boeing and Bell Helicopter, on their lists of Defense programs that should be ended.

For instance, a high-profile debt-reduction panel led by former Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and former Clinton White House budget director Alice Rivlin targeted the V-22 for termination last fall.

The panel targeted Pentagon weapon programs that “might exceed the needs for a mission, that are unduly costly for the capacity they deliver, or that have manifestly failed to fulfill performance expectations.”

Liberal lawmakers often come after the Osprey initiative when looking for places to trim Pentagon spending.

Last month, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) offered an amendment to a Pentagon policy bill that would have directed the department to spend no monies on the program in 2012.

Woolsey dubbed the program a “boondoggle” for the “military-industrial complex.” Terminating the program would save more than $12 billion over 10 years, and $2.5 billion in 2012 alone, she claimed.

The House overwhelmingly defeated her amendment, but not before Woolsey said the aircraft has gotten “mediocre marks” from independent auditors and “underperformed across the board.” There are reports the V-22 has struggled in “high-threat environments,” she said.

She also said it has failed to “prove its worth” operationally and has had a number of major crashes. But Davis says it has proven its value, citing the fleet’s strong record in a rugged war theater.

Program officials and advocates are ready to fight back as Washington continues talking about an era of federal spending cuts. 

Their embryonic message, as Davis put it: “Why would we terminate something that works?”

Marine Corps and Bell-Boeing officials also say to avoid budget cuts or a reduced buy, they will have to show critics like Woolsey that the fleet is reliable.

Right now, the Osprey’s closely monitored reliability rate in Afghanistan is around 73 percent, according to program officials.

Davis wants to push that figure to 80 percent, saying that would make the V-22 among the military’s most reliable aircraft.

DOD and Bell-Boeing officials are working on plans to make the fleet more reliable.

The challenge, Davis said, “will be getting the dollars to get us there.”