Marines, Weldon score victory on Osprey

The U.S. Marine Corps finally is victorious after decades of intense lobbying for the problem-plagued V-22 Osprey helicopter, an ambitious project meant to revolutionize the way Marines fight wars.

House Armed Services Committee Vice Chairman Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), who is known for taking on tough battles many shy away from and is one of the most vocal supporters of the Osprey program, also can chock up a victory.

But as Weldon highlights the benefits of the novel technology built by a Boeing-Bell Textron team, for this fight he had the wind in his sails. It was not hard to entice the parochial interests of his colleagues in Congress because production of this aircraft will bring thousands of jobs to districts across the country — a boon to some 35 states, but most notably to Texas and Pennsylvania.

And for “Buy American” hawks such as Weldon and Armed Services chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), this is a dream come true: the Osprey is “America’s airplane.” The technology is built in the United States, according to Weldon.

“It is the only major weapons-systems program that was canceled and then resurrected,” Weldon told The Hill.

And the congressional battle to defy the Pentagon’s decision to cancel the program several times is making it into the annals of the Navy War College.

“It is a key study … on how Congress overturned [the decision],” Weldon said.

A number of major programs have been canceled throughout the years, and two of the most notable are the Army Comanche helicopter and the Crusader self-propelled howitzer programs.

Now, five years after two Osprey crashes killed 23 Marines and a congressional restriction was placed on the program, the Pentagon’s Defense Acquisition Board last week granted its approval to start full-rate production of the tilt-rotor aircraft, which has been in development since the early 1980s.

The investigation, reengineering and testing that took place in the wake of the 2000 crashes ultimately satisfied the military that it could count on the Osprey.

The Osprey is designed to operate as a helicopter when taking off and landing. Once airborne, it converts into a turbo-prop aircraft.

Each Osprey can carry 24 Marines in full combat gear. Under current plans, 360 aircraft will be delivered to the Marine Corps. The Air Force also is going to receive a version of the tilt-rotor for special-operations missions, as will the Navy. The Bell-Boeing team is planning to produce 48 aircraft a year by 2012.

One Osprey carries a price tag of $71 million, but program officials have committed to lowering the cost to $58 million each by 2010.

The Pentagon’s move would bring new jobs to Boeing’s Ridley Township facility, which benefits both Weldon’s district and Rep. Bob Brady’s (D-Pa.).

About 2,100 Bell employees work on the Osprey in Fort Worth and 900 more in Amarillo. With the Pentagon’s green light, Bell now estimates it would need about 2,000 more workers, most of them in plants around Fort Worth. The districts of Reps. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), who is also a member of the House Armed Services Committee, and Kay Granger (R-Texas), a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, will be getting a boost from this decision.

The Osprey has a rough 20-year history that includes the highly publicized crashes as well as alleged cover-ups by Marine Corps officials.

In 1989, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney tried to cancel the program.

“He was put in as [secretary of defense] as an afterthought,” Weldon recalled. “He had to make cuts in the budget, and it was an easy decision financially.”

Cheney’s attempts to kill the program were met with congressional fury. Lawmakers restored its funding for fiscal years 1990 and 1991.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) also met with the same resilience. His chairman’s mark to the defense authorization bill would have prevented the restoration of funding for the Osprey, but it was defeated by a tight vote.

“It was humiliating for him to lose,” Weldon said.

In 1992, Cheney proposed a compromise. Work on the Osprey could continue, but the aircraft would have to compete against another new medium-lift helicopter.

Cheney offered the compromise because Congress threatened either to withhold money for his office or to take legal action if he continued to reject the program, according to Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at Teal Group.

“We beat the Republican secretary of defense,” Weldon said.

Meanwhile, the Japanese were scouting out the program and trying to court Textron to build it. Weldon and his colleagues bought 535 models of the Osprey and started handing them out.

“We do not care if the Japanese build the model, we want America to build the real thing,” Weldon recalls saying at the time.

For emphasis, an early model of the Osprey was parked in front of the Capitol, Weldon said.

“We worked our rear ends on it,” he continued, noting that he held weekly meetings with the labor unions and the companies involved.

But while Weldon’s crusade in Congress raised awareness and support for the program, the Marine Corps’s efforts to save it cannot be discounted, Aboulafia said.

“Betting against the Marine lobbyist is foolish,” he said. “It was the highest priority for the Marines as their way of reinventing their war fighting.”

The Marine Corps resisted taking on any other programs that would compete with its priority program, the Osprey, he said.

The Marines were in good company in mounting such an aggressive lobbying effort — the future of Bell was riding on production of the Osprey, Aboulafia said.