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Jewish World Review Jan. 23, 2001 / 28 Teves, 5761

Frank J. Gaffney, Jr.

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The Osprey as Phoenix -- SEEMS LIKE a no-brainer. The new Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, is under orders to cut some big military procurement programs so as to "transform the military" on the (relatively) cheap. Everybody from the General Accounting Office to "60 Minutes" to the Pentagon's own testing czar have identified an obvious choice for cancellation: the V-22 Osprey. Vice President Dick Cheney's past opposition to the Osprey; its recent, fatal crashes, substantial price tag and technical complexity; and, most recently, allegations that Marine Corps personnel covered up its maintenance problems -- all appear to validate the argument that this is a weapon system the armed services can live without.

There is only one problem with this emerging conventional wisdom. It's wrong.

Although 60 Minutes' powerful assault on the V-22 program -- with its heart-rending appeals from those who lost Marines in the latest Osprey crashes -- made the point dismissively, the Corps is right when it says the missions of the future require the application of this aircraft's revolutionary tilt-rotor technology. In fact, successive studies by the Pentagon and by outside experts (including the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory) conducted over the past eighteen years have confirmed again and again that no combination of traditional helicopters offers as much combat performance, mission flexibility and survivability at a lower cost than this aircraft which can take-off and land vertically, but convert in-flight to operate like a conventional plane.

The fact is that the Marines will have to purchase something to provide for the future mobility of their air assault forces and the associated equipment. The existing fleet of CH-53 and CH-46 helicopters is rapidly obsolescing and has been forced to stand-down for safety reasons at various times in recent years.

Indeed, problems associated with keeping sophisticated weaponry on-line -- like those said to be afflicting the V-22 and allegedly being suppressed -- are, unfortunately, affecting not only the Corps' other aviation assets. The cumulative effect of inadequate funding for spare parts and maintenance and the wearing-out of so much of the Pentagon's inventory is part of the Clinton legacy that Messrs. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld are going to have to work hard and invest massively to overcome.

While the manufacturer of the Blackhawk UH-60 helicopters have been trying to kill the Osprey for years with assurances that their product can supplant it for less cost, the siren's seductive song is deceptive. To make an apples-to-apples comparison, the Blackhawks would have to be modified to carry larger payloads and many more would have to be purchased. In addition, a new buy of the heavier lift CH-53 helicopters would be required to get comparable capabilities to the planned V-22-only fleet. Since the CH-53 is no longer in production, there would be considerable delays in taking delivery and large costs associated with restarting the line -- especially if, as seems certain, there would have to be redesigns and requalification of suppliers. Additional high costs associated with maintaining the existing fleet of Marine helicopters for a still-longer period would, accordingly, have to be factored into the equation.

Then there are more intangible, but no-less-real operational considerations. Studies have shown that the V-22's significantly longer range and faster speed may contribute decisively to success on the battlefield. Not least, this can mean losses avoided in a currency we hold even more dear than dollars -- the lives of our troops as they fight the Nation's wars.

Unlike the alternatives, the Osprey was designed from the ground up to operate in nuclear, chemical or biological weapons-contaminated environments. As going into harm's way in the future may well require fighting in such difficult conditions, the armed forces must have the best "NBC" protection possible.

The V-22 has also been designed to be self-deployable -- a huge, albeit difficult to quantify, contribution to the flexibility and rapidity with which the United States can respond to far-flung crises without tying up already over-committed and rapidly aging transport aircraft. Various scenarios that have been modeled that suggest the difference can between a timely intervention that makes possible a decisive and low-cost victory on the battlefield, on the one hand, and a tardy and insufficient engagement that can incur needless tactical setbacks and human tolls on the other.

These qualities mean that once the Marines have perfected the Osprey, the other armed services are sure to purchase tilt-rotor aircraft in significant quantities. The Air Force is already committed to acquire a derivative of the V-22 to support the Nation's special operations units. In due course, search-and-rescue, combat medevac and the Army's heliborne forces will likely find the enhanced performance made possible by tilt-rotor technology to be irresistible, with a possibly profound and positive impact on the economies of scale and unit price of each plane. Ditto the very sizeable potential for foreign military sales.

There is, however, another powerful argument for the United States to support the Marines in their determined effort to capitalize on the nearly twenty-year-long investment in the V-22 -- an argument that neither 60 Minutes, nor the GAO nor the other critics have addressed: Tilt-rotor technology will not only revolutionize the art of war. It promises to transform civil aviation in this country as well.

At a time when the American people are reeling from the effects of grid-locked airports with little likelihood of additional construction of long-runway facilities to ease the congestion, commercial spin-offs of the V-22 offer the promise of cost-effective and convenient air transport for millions of our countrymen. The export potential of such aircraft is possibly huge as well with keen interest in the civil tilt-rotor being expressed in densely populated countries like Japan, where real estate and rapid transit are at a premium. These considerations make decisions about the future of the V-22 truly national ones; the Marines should be extolled -- not criticized -- for their willingness to make the investment upon which we all stand to capitalize.

The V-22 was named for the Osprey for their shared and extraordinary aerodynamic abilities. Given the compelling reasons for fulfilling this aircraft's promise that have repeatedly overcome the program's technical challenges and previous efforts to terminate it, the tilt-rotor it might more appropriately be named for another creature -- the Phoenix. Like that mythical beast, the V-22 can -- and must be allowed to -- rise again.

JWR contributor Frank J. Gaffney, Jr. heads the Center for Security Policy. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


01/17/01: Clinton's Parting Shot at Religious Freedom
01/09/01: Wake-up call on space
01/02/01: Secretary Rumsfeld
12/27/00: Redefining our Ukraine policy
12/19/00: Deploy missile defense now
12/12/00: Sabotaging space power
12/05/00: Preempting Bush
11/28/00: What Clinton hath wrought
11/21/00: HE'S BAAAACK
11/14/00: The world won't wait

© 2000, Frank J. Gaffney, Jr.