The Navy has several controversial weapon programs currently under development or in acquisition. They basically all boil down to proponents who believe the claims and have faith that the system will one day achieve all the promised capabilities and opponents who believe that the system will never achieve a sufficient number of capabilities regardless of the time and money expended. History, of course, offers a perspective on the issue and we’ve discussed that from time to time in previous posts. I think it would be instructive to take a close look at a program that is relatively mature now but that once went through the exact process and controversies that are besetting so many current programs. I’m talking about the V-22 Osprey. At one time the V-22 Osprey was every bit as controversial as the LCS, JSF, LPD, or any other program. Of late, though, there seems to be relatively little discussion. The program has become accepted, for better or worse. It’s a good time to take another look at the program and compare the promise to the reality and see what lessons can be learned.
As a reminder, the V-22 (MV-22 Marine version and CV-22 Air Force and Navy version) is claimed to be capable of carrying 24 fully equipped Marines with an external carry capacity of 10,000 lbs over 40 miles. The MV-22 achieved initial operational capability (IOC) in 2007. Recent purchases show the MV-22 costing around $65M each although a CRS report (8) cites a unit procurement cost of $84M each versus the initial cost estimate of $38M per unit.
I won’t bother detailing the crashes and myriad technical issues that plagued early development of the aircraft. The history is well known and easily found on the Internet if anyone wishes to refresh their memory on the subject.
According to GAO (9), DoD testing in 2000 concluded that the MV-22 was operationally effective but not operationally suited. Despite this finding, the program continued. In 2005, after numerous modifications and fixes, the aircraft was again evaluated and, this time, found to be operationally effective and suitable which lead to approval for full rate production.
Operational experience with the aircraft has been mixed. Missions that emphasize speed and range, typically troop and medical transport, have seen the aircraft garner praise. Other missions have shown the MV-22 to be no better than the legacy aircraft. External load carriage, for example, offers no improvement over legacy helos due, in part, to the equipment being limited to transit speeds less than 150 kts. Additionally, the 10000 lb carriage rating is valid only at lower altitudes and is reduced for higher altitudes (9). Short range missions, where speed was not a major factor, demonstrated that the MV-22 was no better than the legacy helos. The MV-22’s low availability rates further reduce the operational effectiveness of the aircraft. The troop transport capacity of 24 fully equipped Marines has been found to be unachievable. Operational experience has shown a capacity of 20 fully equipped troops is the max (9). This is further reduced by two when the Interim Defensive Weapon System (IDWS) is mounted. Use of heavy weapons by the troops further reduces capacity. Visibility limitations were found to hinder situational awareness by troops and crew during landing. Engine service life was found to be less than 400 hours versus the estimated 500-600 hours. Maneuvering limits have restricted the aircrafts ability to perform effective evasive maneuvers resulting in doctrinal changes to minimize exposure of the aircraft to higher threat environments as opposed to the unrestricted use that was originally envisioned. Other flight limitations have been imposed during helo mode flight operations which limit maneuverability and prevent closely spaced formations such as are used by legacy helos for compact and rapid insertion of troops. The MV-22 was originally designed to be NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) capable but persistent problems with cabin seals have led to dropping that capability. The operating cost per flight has been found to be $11,000, more than double the original estimate and 140% greater than the CH-46E (9).
Shipboard deployment of the MV-22 presents several problems. The large size prevents the aircraft from operating on a one-for-one replacement basis for the CH-46. Instead, the MV-22 will deploy on a 10-for-12 basis. Deck spots have been a challenge with two spots near the island being unusable though reports have indicated that procedural changes may now allow that. The MV-22’s spare parts inventory requirements are significantly greater than the legacy helos and impacts maintenance. The large size of the aircraft reduced the number that may be staged in the hangar which further reduces maintenance capacity and has made hangar movement difficult. Prop downwash is significantly greater than standard helos and has necessitated numerous procedural, safety, and equipment changes. Another issue is the extreme heat generated by the downward directed exhaust which has caused deformation problems for ship’s decks.
One of the drawbacks of the MV-22 is that it is unable to carry side mount machine guns as a typical helo could due to the tremendous size of the engines and wings. To address this capability gap, the MV-22 has had an Interim Defensive Weapon System (IDWS) option added to provide covering fire during landing operations. The weapon is a belly mounted, retractable, machine gun system based on the GAU-17 minigun. DOT&E reports (6) that testing of the gun showed the system has limited firing arcs during landing/take-off and requires extensive co-ordination between the pilot and gunner at a moment when the pilot is completely occupied with landing. The weapon was found to be effective when it could be successfully employed. Installation of the IDWS, which weighs 800 lbs, reduces troop and cargo carrying capacity, costing two troop seats. The IDWS costs about $1M per unit. Defense Industry Daily website (7) reports that the weapon system has met with only limited success and acceptance among aircrew. A rear ramp mounted 0.50 cal gun has also been tested and is effective but is limited to rear targets only.
Aircraft maintenance and resultant mission availability has been a persistent problem. DOT&E reports MV-22 mission capable rates from June 2007 – May 2010 as 53% versus the required target of 82% (6). This rate is well below that of the legacy helos that the MV-22 is supposed to replace. The CRS report (8) states that the aircraft’s excessively large spare parts inventory requirements makes shipboard operation problematic.
Finally, since the beginning of the program there have been persistent allegations of misinformation and misconduct by Marine leadership as regards the safety and performance record of the MV-22. The website g2mil.com has an extensive series of articles on the subject (2, 3, 4, 5) for those who are interested. I don’t know the authority level of the source so I won’t comment further. The USNI blog also has an article on the subject (1).
How has the MV-22 turned out compared to its original vision? The GAO report (9) sums it up this way.
“After more than 20 years in development and 14 years since the last cost and operational effectiveness analysis was developed to reaffirm the decision to proceed with the V-22 program in 1994, the MV-22 experience in
demonstrated that it can complete missions assigned in low-threat environments. Its speed and range were enhancements. However, operational tests and training exercises suggest that challenges may limit its ability to accomplish the full repertoire of missions of the legacy helicopters it is replacing. If so, those tasks will need to be fulfilled by some other alternative. Viewed more broadly, the MV-22 has yet to fully demonstrate that it can achieve the original required level of versatility.” Iraq
The aircraft was “sold” as being able to operate in a wide variety of missions across a wide variety of environments with certain standards of performance regarding speed, range, and payload. However, as the MV-22 progressed through its development and early production it experienced a steady series of decreases in its capabilities compared with what was promised. The operational reality appears to be that it is limited to lower threat scenarios, limited in maneuverability and performance, has less troop capacity than stated, is less capable or no better than the legacy helos in some missions, and suffers from chronic, severe maintenance and availability issues. On the plus side, for those missions that it can do, the speed and range compared to legacy helos offers significant benefits.
In short, the MV-22 appears to be a niche aircraft which offers benefits under a certain, rather narrow, set of mission parameters.
The MV-22 offers broader lessons. The astute among you are probably thinking that this all sounds familiar. If you re-read this post and substitute “LCS” (or “LPD” or “JSF”) for “MV-22” the story could apply to almost any weapon program. The LCS, for example, is going to wind up being significantly less capable than intended, costs more to operate, suffers from maintenance issues, and is less useful than originally envisioned – same as the MV-22. The lesson, here, is that weapon programs are always oversold and overhyped and will turn out to be less capable than claimed while costing more to procure and operate than estimated. This needs to be recognized by all parties in the procurement process and factored into the assessments. In particular, the Navy needs to stop making outlandish claims about programs in the “selling” stage and just be more honest and realistic about capabilities and costs. Witness the Navy’s continuing aggressive defense of the LCS capabilities in the face of overwhelming evidence of severe limitations and performance shortfalls. While the Navy has backed off many of the original performance claims for the LCS, it has done so only very grudgingly and in the process has attempted to demonize critics who turned out to be correct. This has cost the Navy support and damaged their credibility and integrity. It would have been much better for the Navy to have stated up front, “Here’s the capabilities we’re designing for but there will probably be performance compromises along the developmental path.” That’s honest and realistic and does not detract from the “salability” of the program.
As we continue to debate the LCS, LPD, JSF, Zumwalt, etc., let’s take the lessons to heart and recognize that every program will only partially succeed but will still provide useful service under the right circumstances. The question is whether the cost of the program is justified by the ultimate usefulness of the system.
(6) Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, FY2011 Annual Report
(8) Congressional Research Service, “V-22 Osprey Tilt-Rotor Aircraft: Background and Issues for Congress”, Jeremiah Gertler,
March 10, 2011
(9) Government Accountability Office, “Defense Acquisitions - Assessments Needed to Address V-22 Aircraft Operational and Cost Concerns to Define Future Investments, May 2009, GAO-09-482