It has been three decades since the V-22 Osprey first flew. Over that time, the V-22 has confounded its critics and more than proven itself in operations from Southwest Asia to the Western Pacific. Its abilities to fly like an airplane and land like a helicopter are particularly well-suited to an era of distributed operations. As the acquisition program reaches the end of its third multiyear procurement, the defense department needs to act to maintain production of this versatile aircraft.
V-22 is something of a cautionary tale to those advocating for more rapid innovation by the military. The program experienced both technical and operational challenges. This is often the case with new and transformational capabilities. NASA experienced tragedies in both its Apollo and Space Shuttle programs, and those were systems the engineers thought they knew well.
But for better than two decades, the V-22 has performed remarkably well under extremely trying conditions in different theaters, including the hot, high environment of Afghanistan. Over that time, the Osprey Fleets have managed to log 600,000 flight hours. During this period, it has maintained an accident rate as low as other Marine Corps aircraft.
One reason the V-22 has succeeded is that it was given the time to work out technical problems. It also had a dedicated champion, the U.S. Marine Corps, that saw the value in the Osprey and worked hard to figure out how to operate a new kind of flying machine.
The first incarnation of the Osprey, the MV-22, was developed to be an assault aircraft, allowing Marines to bypass littoral defenses and conduct landings on critical terrain that might lack a conventional airfield. With its range and speed, the Osprey could be launched from standoff platforms beyond the enemy's surveillance range. These attributes continue to serve the Marine Corps well and will find particular utility in the Indo-Pacific theater's vast reaches.
The same features that made the MV-22 effective in the assault role also made it a candidate for other missions. The aircraft's ability to launch, conduct a mission, and return to base all under cover of darkness made it an obvious candidate for the combat search and rescue mission. Air Force Special Operations Command has acquired the CV-22 variant precisely to help fill this role. The CV-22 is specially equipped with additional capabilities such as an integrated threat countermeasure system, terrain-following radar, advanced forward-looking infrared sensors, and sophisticated avionics that support low-level operations at night and in adverse weather.
More recently, the U.S. Navy chose the Osprey to replace the aged C-2 conventional Greyhound for the carrier resupply's mission. The new CMV-22B is just entering service. It can transport people and heavy cargo to and from an aircraft carrier and, unlike the C-2, carry cargo between surface ships. The CMV-22B will contribute to the U.S. Navy’s efforts to implement its concept of distributed operations.
The V-22 has had a growing impact on how the U.S. military can conduct aerial operations in horizontal and vertical dimensions. The Osprey was the first step on the journey to fulfill the military's "need for speed" regarding vertical lift. The ability to fly like an airplane but land like a helicopter has proven to be liberating to how the U.S. military can employ airpower.
Recent force structure studies continue to validate the need for multi-mission capabilities on platforms with greater speed and range, especially in the Indo-Pacific theater. The V-22 is the only rotorcraft capable of supporting the distances required to execute emerging concepts such as Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE), and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) warfighting concepts. In addition to their land-based operations, organic shipboard capability is key for both Navy and Marine Corps operations in the Distributed Maritime Environment. The MV-22’s ability to rapidly ground and refuel other platforms expands Marine Corps capabilities to support DMO, LOCE, and EABO.
Even the Army has recognized the value of aerial platforms that are both fast and maneuverable. Its Future Vertical Lift (FVL) owes much to the success of the V-22. Both candidates for the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft, the Bell V-280 Valor, and the Sikorsky-Boeing Defiant, have focused on providing the speed and range associated with a fixed-wing aircraft with maneuverability and vertical landing capability like that of a traditional helicopter.
While it is hoped that the products of the FVL program might eventually support these warfighting concepts, the first Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) unit will not be deployed for nearly a decade. Thus, at least for the next twenty years, all the Services will have to rely on the V-22 to fulfill the demands of new warfighting concepts.
There are plans to substantially enhance the functionality of the V-22 and allow it to expand its mission set to include airborne ISR, for example. The addition of an airborne early warning/Infrared Search and Track capability will allow the V-22 to serve as a sophisticated airborne ISR and command and control platform. So will improvements to digital information systems such as USMC’s Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Agile Network Gateway Link (MANGL), which integrates a mesh network manager and Adaptive Networking Wideband Waveform (ANW2), Link 16, and Tactical Targeting Network Technology (TTNT) waveforms.
The V-22 program is approaching the end of the last year of procurement in the future years' defense program. Given changes in the geostrategic threat, the need to address the operational challenges of large theaters, and the demands new operating concepts are placing on the aerial elements of the Joint Force. It makes no sense to halt the production of this incredibly useful platform. As operational usage of the V-22 increases in response to the shift to the Indo-Pacific and the implementation of distributed operations, the need for additional V-22s can already be anticipated. The U.S. military cannot afford to go a decade or more without access to new productions of V-22s.
Defense Secretary Austin is well aware from his time commanding in the Middle East the value provided by the V-22. The Department of Defense needs to avoid a serious capability gap by preserving a hot production line and continuing to improve the capabilities of the V-22. This will not only support U.S. forces but allies such as Japan, Israel, and Indonesia that either operate the V-22 or soon will.
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Gouré has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here