The Marine Corps Plans to Arm Its Osprey Tiltrotors with Missiles

This might be a terrible idea

By David Axe

The U.S. Marine Corps wants to add precision-guided munitions—most likely forward-firing missiles—to its growing fleet of MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor transports, which take off like helicopters but cruise like airplanes thanks to their rotating engines.

“Enhanced offensive weapon systems on the MV-22 will provide increased capabilities for the SPMAGTF-CR and employment options to the combatant commander,” the Marines’ 2015 aviation plan explains.

SPMAGTF-CR stands for Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response. It’s a new kind of combined air and infantry unit the Marine Corps is standing up in world hot spots in order to respond quickly to crises such as civil wars and terrorist attacks.

These task forces and other Marine formations “will require an assortment of lightweight precision weapons with scalable lethality,” the document adds.

In other words, the Marines want to be able to hit small targets in crowded conditions without risking civilian casualties. Think a chaotic political coup in which insurgent fighters mix with demonstrators or refugees.

Separately, the 2015 aviation plan—which details the Marines’ aircraft investments—specifies that the Corps will upgrade its planned fleet of 388 Ospreys with new targeting sensors in addition to the “enhanced weapon system.”

The plan predicts that by 2019, the Marines will begin replacing today’s main Hellfire, TOW and Maverick air-to-ground missiles with a single new weapon, the Joint Air-to-Ground Munition, or JAGM.

The 100-pound JAGM combines a new seeker with laser and radar guidance with the existing warhead and motor of the latest Hellfire.

But that doesn’t mean the MV-22 will necessarily carry JAGMs. The Marines could opt to fit a smaller weapon, such as the 45-pound Griffin missile. The Corps has purchased six so-called “Harvest Hawk” weapons kits—which include Griffins—and modified 10 of its KC-130J tanker planes to carry the kits.

In any event, adding more armament to the Osprey might be a terrible idea. The MV-22 is a lightly-protected, aerodynamically fickle machine that performs best when it avoids a fight.

At present, Marine MV-22s routinely carry only a single heavy machine gun on their rear ramps for suppressive fire, strictly in a backward direction. A remote-controlled belly turret is also available, but the device is heavy and awkward and the Marines have never copped to using it in actual combat.

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Instead, mission planners take care to route the complex tiltrotors around the heaviest enemy defenses. And when they fail to do so, the consequences can be disastrous.

In December last year, three Air Force CV-22s were flying over Bor in South Sudan, en route to rescue American citizens stranded in the country’s simmering civil war, when gunmen on the ground opened fire. Bullets and fragments punched right through the tiltrotors’ unarmored bellies, injuring four special operators.

Three of the wounded troops were in critical condition and nearly died as the damaged Ospreys aborted their mission and limped to Entebbe airport in neighboring Uganda. Aerial tankers had to fly alongside to replenish fuel leaking from punctured tanks.

In adding missiles, the Marines seem to be telegraphing their intention to send Ospreys directly into harm’s way. The JAGM missile might be able to hit targets as far away as five miles, but that doesn’t guarantee that enemy defenders won’t have a chance to shoot back.