Several news outlets are reporting on the announcement yesterday that the Marine Corps' revolutionary tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey will be deploying to Iraq this fall after two decades of development. Despite setbacks, including fatal crashes of the aircraft, such as the loss of 19 Marines in an April 8, 2000 crash in Arizona, the Marine Corps' has stuck with the Osprey. Indeed "the Marine Corps has built its entire future concept of warfare around the V-22," Loren Thompson, a defense industry analyst, told The Washington Post.
But the Marine Corps' planned reliance on the V-22 is a strategic procurement mistake. Each V-22 costs so much the overall quantity buy had to be scaled back. Marine commanders might be loathe to put the relatively few $100 million V-22s they have in risky situations where, with a cheaper, much more numerous helicopter model, they would have the numbers to be more flexible. Each V-22 might be perceived as so precious, they may not be put into battles that may need to be fought, if the few that will be bought are even available. The budget realities of the V-22 buy may bind the military, putting our troops at risk and reducing military options to the extent where the best options may have to be ruled out.
We do think the V-22 could fulfill specialty missions, such as special ops deployments or long-range rescue missions (like the “Desert One” situation), but those relatively few missions don't justify putting all of the Marine's chips behind just the V-22. There should be a better procurement mix, perhaps 50 or so V-22s and a large purchase of cheaper, yet still very capable helicopters.
The design of the V-22, while particularly suited for the specialty missions listed above, are possibly deadly liabilities.
Weight problems with the V-22 and the placement of the prop-rotors on the sides of the aircraft both make it difficult to install a gun on the aircraft (the gun's weight has to be counterbalanced and the V-22's prop-rotors physically get in the way of mounting guns on the side). V-22 proponents say the problem is minimized because the Osprey can fly faster than helicopters when it is in aircraft mode. But the Osprey will not be in aircraft mode when taking off, landing, picking up or dropping off troops—the times when it needs a gun the most to suppress enemy ground fire.
Also, the design of the V-22 creates a unique flight envelope which may make it prone to entering the Vortex Ring State (VRS), however, some knowledgeable people have claimed that "The V22 VRS envelope is significantly smaller than any other rotorcraft out there....it is harder to get a V22 into VRS than a regular helicopter." This is a point of some disagreement and any knowledgeable readers should chime in down in the comments.
Appropriate training and understanding of the V-22's flight envelope will help pilots avoid VRS, but when engaged in combat maneuvering, pilots need the kind of maneuvering flexibility that may exceed the threshold of a safe flight envelope--will V-22 pilots exceed their aircraft's threshold and put them at risk more often when engaged in combat manuevering than the pilots of other helicopters?
Furthermore, the V-22 is unable to autorotate, a standard safety capability all helicopter pilots learn to utilize. When the V-22 goes down, it is more likely to go down harder than helicopters do.
Again, V-22s engaged in long-range rescue operations or special ops missions may be less likely to deal with these situations than a workhorse combat helo. Though it could autorotate, had defensive guns and did not have the tendency to enter VRS, thousands of UH-1 Hueys went down in Vietnam (pdf).
Recent hydraulic leaks indicate that the V-22 may have some serious bugs that could put the aircraft at risk and increase maintenance time. The desert environment is unforgiving (the AH-64 Apache had significant problems in the first Gulf War because sand got into its engines), leading to more maintenance time.
How will the V-22 fare in that environment? When it lands, its two prop-rotors kick up quite a bit of desert sand leading to decreased visibility from brown-out. Will that exacerbate the maintenance problem too?