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The Osprey, Indispensable for Future War Plans

March 07, 2024

Before long, the grounded V-22 Osprey fleet may be back in the air. Air Force Special Operations Command touched off the speculation last week, when they announced that ongoing safety reviews have identified the mechanical part failure that caused the November 29 crash of a CV-22 in route to Okinawa, Japan. Lieutenant General Tony Bauernfeind, Commander, Air Force Special Operations Command also said “there is a strong desire to return to fly because this is a capability we want to have.”

You know the story so far. The Air Force stood down all its CV-22s in December, and the Marine Corps, Navy and Japan Self Defense Force also issued grounding bulletins. In the case of the CV-22, the Air Force determined quickly that the cause was mechanical, and not pilot error. The Air Force and contractor team set to work immediately to evaluate options. In early January, divers recovered the black box of the CV-22 from the seas off Japan.

Those who only follow breaking news about the Osprey may be surprised to learn how indispensable the V-22 advanced tiltrotor variants have become. The Osprey has gradually shouldered more and more new missions. Bauernfeind’s comments were a reminder that the Osprey fleet – across the Marines, Air Force and Navy – has a powerful operational record and a central place in future war plans. Don’t forget that the Army has been impressed enough with the operational benefits of the Osprey to develop an advanced tiltrotor of their own, the V-280 Valor.

While the Marines, Navy and Air Force await the return to fly, here are four factors that have made the Osprey vital across the Services.

First, on data alone, the Osprey is not an outlier. The Marines operate almost 350 MV-22s and their fleet has more than 530,000 flying hours. The Marines are satisfied with the MV-22’s operational record. As Steve Busby pointed out in a Feb. 25 article for Defense One, the 10-year average mishap rate for MV-22s is 3.43 per 100,000 flight hours, placing the mishap rate “squarely in the middle” of other current Marine Corps aircraft.

Next is responsiveness in missions such as noncombatant evacuation operations. Probably no unit is more eager to get its Ospreys flying again than the 26th MEU (SOC). The MV-22Bs are flown by the 26th MEU’s “Golden Eagles” of Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 162. After the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, the 26th MEU packed up early from an exercise in Kuwait, and the USS Bataan and other amphibious ships headed for the Eastern Mediterranean to be in place in the conflict boiled over. NEOs and similar connector operations are a core mission for the Osprey. MV-22s can extract a partial element from an embassy, or rescue personnel from an isolated location. The Ospreys have greatly expanded their ability to save lives and finesse diplomatic options. The 26th MEU’s MV-22s have special dispensation to fly if needed even during the stand-down in case tensions with Hezbollah necessitated a non-combatant evacuation of American personnel from Lebanon, for example.

Take a look at what happens without the Osprey. On Apr. 22, 2023, U.S. forces evacuated just under 100 American staff from the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan. No Marine Expeditionary Unit was nearby due to other global commitments and the shortage of amphibious ships. Ospreys were not available, and their absence was felt. As a result, the NEO ran in multiple stages. MH-47 Chinooks from Djibouti, Somalia had to land and refuel in Ethiopia, then flew three more hours to Khartoum. A separate convoy evacuated more U.S. citizens and allies by driving 700 miles to Port Sudan a week later. In contrast, four MV-22s could have completed the initial embassy evacuation in about four hours.

These qualities of speed and range lead to the third factor: dominating the distributed battlespace of the Pacific. For the Marine Corps, the Osprey steps into a central role in scenarios for deterring and countering China in the Pacific. The Marine Corps debuted Force 2030 with an emphasis on breaking up large forces in favor of distributed operations. Dr. Frank Hoffman described it for the BBC as “an adaptation to cover a deeper area with a more accurate mix of firepower.”

Under this concept, amphibious ready groups and carrier strike groups will be dotted across the battle area for both lethality and survivability. Unlike the Cold War, where forces deployed in advance, the current operating concepts call for distributed operations. Forces will insert rapidly into the battle zone in dispersed formations. That’s a job for the MV-22s. In fact, it’s fair to say the Marines shaped their Force 2030 concept partly around the Osprey’s ability to insert teams at multiple locations, then supply and reposition them.

Once inserted, the success of smaller combat units distributed across the battlespace depends directly on logistics to consolidate gains and sustain operations; again, a job for the MV-22s. Self-diagnostic technology on the MV-22s also allows the Osprey to operate remotely and conduct several flight segments ashore without returning to base for maintenance.

Fourth, the Navy is also counting on the Osprey’s agility. The Navy has just taken delivery of the last of their 48 CMV-22s with upgrades such as extra fuel capacity and a high-frequency radio. “We have better range. We have much better avionics. We have better communications which allows us to connect with the strike groups more securely,” Captain Sam Bryant, Commander, Fleet Logistics Multi-Mission Wing, said of the CMV-22s in a 2023 interview. “We are better suited for long-range navigation operations, and the flexibility required to support a high-end fight in the Pacific.”

Rapid delivery to the carrier at ranges of 1150 nautical miles and more will place heavy demands on the Osprey. For example, the CMV-22B has cargo space to deliver a replacement F135 engine power module for the F-35C Lightning stealth fighter and attack aircraft to a carrier underway in the Pacific. The Navy Ospreys will operate through the 2050s. There’s just one catch. The fleet is sized for routine onboard delivery, and may be inadequate for distributed combat operations. The Navy may well wish they’d bought more.

The fact that the Army down-selected the Bell Textron V-280 Valor for its future long range assault aircraft is perhaps the ultimate compliment to the Osprey. “Advanced rotorcraft configurations give us the speed and the range to cover Indo-Pacom, [multi-domain operations]-relevant distances,” said MG Walter Rugen, director of the Future Vertical Lift Cross-Functional Team, at contract award. The V-280 is a new design that will leverage lessons of the V-22 to bring a highly advanced tiltrotor to the Army with exceptional operational capabilities. The V-280 straight wing design reduces manufacturing costs and lessons learned from the V-22 have been applied to the V-280’s fly-by-wire and hydraulics systems.

It’s also a big investment. The Army will spend as much as $70 billion to procure its V-280 Valor fleet, depending on final procurement numbers and potential foreign military sales. There is no doubt the Army would never have made this commitment without the strong operational record of the V-22 over the last three decades.

Each military aircraft accident is a reminder of the risks service members willingly face every day. With threats from China increasing, the role of the Osprey is more vital than ever. It will be good to see the Osprey back in the sky.

Rebecca Grant is President of IRIS Independent Research and a Senior Fellow of the Lexington Institute.

This article was originally published by RealClearDefense and made available via RealClearWire.
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