“Too Big to Fail,” U.S. Marines Version: The V-22 Osprey

MV-22 Osprey in Afghanistan

A USMC V-22 flying in Afghanistan [From http://www.flickr.com/photos/marine_corps/ / CC BY-NC 2.0]

I first saw the V-22 in person in the summer of 2005 while stationed in Quantico, Virginia.  I was at an event at the officer’s club there, and just as we were walking out to the parking lot to head home, we saw them across the road, two of them, using the nearby parade grounds as a landing zone.  At that time, most of us had never seen them in person before, so we stood slack-jawed, watching as they prepared to take off, and then, improbably, leapt forth into the sky vertically and transitioned their propellers from helicopter mode to “go fast” mode, rocketing off to the horizon at an impossibly fast speed for a “helicopter.”  It was quite remarkable, I remember thinking at the time – they don’t look like they should even be able to fly, yet there they went up, up and away.

I was no stranger to the V-22 – probably no Marine was.  Full-page glossy photos of the machine had been adorning defense contractor advertisements in the Marine Corps Gazette and other defense periodicals since before I had first taken an interest in the Marine Corps in the early 1990s.  The V-22 had been “hyped” so hard for so long, I figured it was little more than a pipe dream.  Lo and behold, a decade hence, there it was!

The Dream MachineBut it was gained at no small cost, as two reviews of a new book about the V-22 assert: 25 years of development, $22 billion, and over two dozen lives.  Influential defense blog Danger Room recently interviewed Richard Whittle, author of the new book The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey and the May 2010 edition of the Marine Corps Gazette also features a review of the book.  Taken in concert, they’ve got me hooked on wanting to read the book.

From the Gazette:

The major credit for the Osprey’s repeated leases on life can be traced to many familiar names in our current and recent Marine Corps. From majors and lieutenant colonels who believed in the dream to general officers who recognized its potential, there is no shortage of Marines who literally staked their careers and reputations on the success of the program. Just as important are the members of Congress and industry who shared the vision and continually resurrected what appeared to be a dead program by providing support and, most importantly, money to keep the dream alive.

I worked in close proximity to Marine general officers in 2007 – 08, and I recall that at the time of the first Osprey deployment to Iraq in September 2007 the “pucker factor” was high – there was simply no way that the Iraq deployment could fail.  Too much money, too much time, and too many lives had gone into the development of the airframe and its revolutionary capabilities; it had to be a success.

I’ve discussed the V-22 with Marine rotary wing pilots who fly other airframes and who served in Iraq at the same time the initial deployment was made, and they were of the opinion that the V-22 deployment was successful in no small part because the missions assigned to it were “cherry picked” to maximize the chances it would not be put in an ambiguous situation where failure would likely result, i.e. a V-22 crash or shoot-down.  If this is the case, then the strategy was a success – no Marine V-22’s crashed or were lost in Iraq.  Here’s what Whittle had to say about the Marine V-22’s in Iraq:

Riding in [the V-22] in Iraq wasn’t much different from flying in it elsewhere, except that a crew chief fired some rounds from the machine gun on the back ramp to test it after we took off. In theory, there was a chance somebody would shoot at us, but peace had broken out in Al Anbar province at the time – this was December 2007. Besides, while helicopters usually fly low in combat zones, the Marines cruise their Ospreys at 8,000 feet or more, well above the range of AK-47s and RPGs. The Osprey gets to that altitude quickly enough that getting shot at wasn’t a great worry when I flew in Iraq. It also gets you where you’re going a lot faster than a helicopter can, and it doesn’t shake and rattle you the way many military helicopters do.

Recently a U.S. Air Force V-22 variant crashed in Afghanistan and several servicemen were killed.  When I saw the headline talking about a V-22 crash in Afghanistan, I automatically assumed it was a USMC aircraft and that after such a long development and fielding process followed by an extremely careful method of making the initial combat deployments that the inevitable had happened and that a “knee jerk” reaction would be forthcoming, removing all V-22’s from the Afghan theater.  Thankfully, this has not been the case.

It takes a certain amount of risk to even develop an aircraft like this.  Its unique design gives it capabilities that far surpass any other rotary wing aircraft in the U.S. inventory (along with certain drawbacks that are also unique to it).  In his interview with Danger Room, author Richard Whittle had this to say about Marines, risk, and the V-22:

The Marines are risk-takers by nature, but as I explain in the book, they’ve been in love with vertical-lift aircraft since the helicopter and the atomic bomb emerged during World War II. They saw very quickly that in the atomic age, it might be impossible to do amphibious assaults — their trademark mission — from ships anchored close to a hostile shore, the way they did them in World War II. They fell in love with the tiltrotor because it offered a faster and better way to take Marines to a fight from ships at sea. Their passion for it, though, stems from their unique culture. Unlike the other armed services, the Marines are also a tribe or even a cult, and one of their tribal beliefs is that they have to be different to continue as a separate branch of the military.

Amen, brother!  I am glad that the Marine Corps stuck with the V-22, despite the costs in lives and treasure, for it has the capability to change the way that we are able to move around the battlespace.  Indeed, the combat radius of a V-22 compared to the aircraft it is designed to replace, the Vietnam War-vintage CH-46E is almost funny:

combat radius comparison

Combat radius comparison

For an example of what could be done with the V-22 a little bit closer to home (I live in Taiwan), if you took off in a combat-loaded CH-46E from Kaohsiung, you probably would not be able to make it to China and back. (The CH-46’s advertised combat radius is 184 miles, which is pretty close to the approximately 190 miles that Google Earth tells me it is from Kaohsiung to the Xiamen / Zhangzhou area in China’s Fujian province.) Contrast that with the V-22’s combat radius of 426 miles.  You would not only be able to reach China, you would be able to make it all the way to Hong Kong, 407 miles away.  And then after dropping off its cargo, the V-22 could then return to Kaohsiung, without refueling.  Let’s take a look at the graphic, courtesy of PowerPoint and Google Maps:

Distances from Kaohsiung to selected Chinese cities

(Or, if you’d prefer to see the actual PowerPoint slide, it’s here (.pptx): KHH – HKK)

Not bad.  Nice capability.  This is only a hypothetical situation, though – I don’t think the V-22 will be among approved weapons sales to Taiwan anytime soon. (Better luck with the F-16s that have been promised since the George H. W. Bush administration.)

Marine load cargo on Osprey

Loading an Osprey in Afghanistan [From http://www.flickr.com/photos/marine_corps/ / CC BY-NC 2.0]
In summary, Richard Whittle’s new book about the V-22 looks pretty darn interesting to me and I plan to add it to my “to read” stack.  Maybe you should check it out, too.

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4 Responses to ““Too Big to Fail,” U.S. Marines Version: The V-22 Osprey”

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