Partial transcript of Dec. 15, 2009 news briefing by Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James T. Conway
Q: Sir, can you talk about the Osprey and utilization rate in Afghanistan, maybe how differently -- I know in Iraq they were still sort of getting used to how to fully load the aircraft, and again -- and the pace is a lot higher. Can you talk a little bit about that?
GEN. CONWAY: You know, I'll start with our three deployments of Osprey into Iraq, one on the heels of the other. We then took a break and put it aboard ship with the MEU [Marine Expeditionary Unit] that went into the CENTCOM Theater. It was there for availability. But from our own internal purposes, we were finding out a lot about salt sea air and systems aboard ship and all that type thing -- things that we needed to answer for the long-term use of the aircraft aboard the MEUs.
When that MEU left the theater, it flew its Ospreys into Afghanistan. And there will be Ospreys in Afghanistan now for as long as there are Marines in Afghanistan, because the aircraft, again, just has an incredible capability. One of the things that we had to, I think, experience is that this is not just a replacement to the CH-46. This aircraft is so much more capable than that, that we actually had to adjust our aviation techniques and tactics and procedures to match the capability of the airplane. Used to -- two H -- two CH-46s would take off and stay mated for the entire day.
Today, two Ospreys take off, go different directions doing different things around the battlefield because they can join very quickly on each other if there's -- if there's an issue.
We're using them in some of our operations, if you will, to land troops deep and to very quickly build up troop numbers on the deck. They can do that so much faster than any other means. So when you're selection for that course of action is an air assault, this aircraft has tremendous capacity; fly above the air threat that we've got, deposit its troops quickly and do it all again.
We now have guns on our Ospreys in theater. That's something that took a little while, but they're now with them there. So they have a self-escort, an immediate suppression kind of capability.
So if I sound excited about the airplane, we are. It is -- it is really, I think, showing its capacity here in an area that really lends itself to it, because when I first went there and flew around in a CH-53, or drove the roads, I come to realize just how expansive this area is. It's the size of Texas. And so getting around in something that large requires a fast-moving airplane that is very non- susceptible to enemy fires.
Q: We've heard this before, about how good it is, and admittedly major improvements. Then last June the GAO came out with a report laying out all the mission-capable shortfalls in an Iraq that, frankly, no offense, but you and other Marine Corps officials never really disclosed. Everything was hunky-dory.
What is the mission-capable rate at this point? What are they predicting? And is there going to be another cannibalization of parts issue?
GEN. CONWAY: Let me go back and address your first point there, if I can an, Tony. And that is to say that everything you read in that GAO report was old news. Okay? For whatever combination of reasons, both the GAO and the congressional inquiry that followed chose not to use information that we provided them about the fixes that were in place to the very issues that they cited. We thought that was a little bit one-sided and that intelligent people would make different determinations given the facts of the matter. So we continue to work it. You know, we're the last to paint something in rose colors if it's not going to, you know, help accomplish the mission or be dangerous for employment with our Marines.
So in terms of availability rates, they started out in about the 68 to 72 range in Iraq. We discovered some things about a little part called the slip ring that was wearing out in that unique kind of Iraqi talcum dust that hadn't been an issue for us in the U.S. western desert.
We found similarly some things with regard to shipboard life that we hadn't anticipated, but that's part of this whole learning process. Today it's in the 70s, approaching the 80s at times, in Afghanistan.
And the answer to your question with regard to the future is what every other new platform has experienced. It starts out, you know, with these lower than what we would like availability rates, but it climbs the ladder to the point we're at 92, 93, 94 percent. And we think that the Osprey is on that trajectory. That's right where we would want it to be. And the things that we're finding are not major systems kinds of problems that need to go back to the manufacturer; they're bushings and they're coatings and they're things that wear out in use when you fly the wings off the airplane.
Q: Let me ask about the Joint Strike Fighter, too. There's a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on this tomorrow. What's your level of concern these days, contrasted with earlier this year when you were fairly enthusiastic about the STOVL'S [Short Take-Off Vertical Landing] purported performance? You know, it hasn't flown yet, the full envelope, but we're still waiting, sir. What's your level of concern?
GEN. CONWAY: Yeah. We have the first test aircraft at Pax [Patuxent] River. The second one, I think, is going to be there before the end of the year.
My focus, Tony, is on the promise that the contractor has made to us that we will have IOC [Initial Operational Capability] of our first squadron -- and by the way, I think you know we're the first service to get an operational squadron -- in 2012. That is an important period to us because the British and the Italians, who are buying the same version that we are, are keenly interested in that. We have accepted risk now for a number of years not buying fourth generation airplanes, such as the Navy has done, to await the arrival of this aircraft. We've got a small bathtub out there, a vulnerability with regard to attack and fighter aircraft.
So all of our planning is 2012 backwards. And when we ask that question, we get the same answer: We're going to make 2012 for you; it may be December of calendar year 2012, but we're going to make 2012 for you.
And what the contractors tell us, and in fact it's validated by the program manager, is that the ground test birds that we have used are going to be tremendously more impactful than they have been in the past, and that a lot of things that we're going -- that we could see when we start flying the experimental aircraft in the vertical takeoff mode will be less problematic for us.
I still fully expect to get an invitation in the spring of next year to go watch the first vertical flight at Pax River.
And if that happens, again, the contractors and the program manager tell me that we will be generally on the schedule that they think we need to follow.
Q: What does your BS meter tell you, though? I mean, you've heard this from the companies and the program manager before, that the thing is on schedule, it's going to do this, it's going to do that. I mean, are you getting more skeptical or are you --
GEN. CONWAY: Well, I'm a -- I'm an unapologetic optimist, okay, I got to tell you that at the outset, I guess. But, you know, I -- we are very concerned about it. We register that concern, okay. I just saw Bob Stevens last week, you know, and we stood closer than you and I are, and I asked him that question, okay. So -- and he's not a BS kind of guy. You know, he tells me he's got his A team on it, he still thinks he can make 2012, and all, you know, focuses are in that direction. So I got to take the man at his word. And so I think everybody understands how important it is and that we're not going to -- we're not going to let up.
Q: What are concerned about? I don't -- this will be my last question. What are you concerned about at this point, though? That they may not make the '012 date, or that the program is just slipping too much?
GEN. CONWAY: Our focus is 2012, okay. And I think they're related. So long as that -- as that doesn't slip, then I -- I'm not going to be critical of the other things that they have in some of the areas of the program, okay. Cost rise and all that, that's someone else's concern, at least at this point, although we're watching it in a per-unit kind of consideration. But our focus is that we want to get those planes in and operational so we can start doing the same thing with the F-35 that we -- that we have done with Osprey.
Q: General, staying on that issue, forward-looking, both the Osprey and the Joint Strike Fighter, the Navy's now having concerns about the heat on deck -- you know, that if you're burning -- turning the engines on the Ospreys, you know, pre- or post-flight, you know, you're overheating the deck, and they're worried about eventually wearing them out. Same problem expected with the F-35. You know -- and are you getting into a situation where you're going to have your airplanes but you're not going to be -- have anything to --
GEN. CONWAY: No, we don't think that's an issue. If you simply alter the direction of the blast deflector a little bit, it's not as large an issue. The other fix that we've got are some relatively inexpensive pads that will absorb the heat and not -- and not fry the non-skid. So they're just -- we think that there's not that much that's going to keep it – aboard ship.
And we're going to experiment with it, okay. We -- you know, we don't want to minimize the Navy's concern about these types of things.
But we fly Harriers on and off the deck. They have the vertical thrust. And so we think all those things can be fixed in time.
It's going to be -- it's going to be a different set of requirements admittedly. But there's nothing that we see there as a showstopper that keeps us from putting the aircraft aboard ship.
Q : (Off mike) -- you know, any indication that they're rethinking, allowing you to put your Ospreys and Joint Strike Fighters --
GEN. CONWAY: No. I think they want us to put the Ospreys and the Joint Strike Fighters out aboard ship. I think collectively for those reasons and others, we're going to find a way to get it done, yeah. (end of excerpt)
Click here for the full transcript, on the Pentagon website.