Weight, balance issues put program further behind, but Marines say V-22 is still their top aviation priority By Joseph Neff, Staff Writer The Marines fought in Iraq with Vietnam-era helicopters, and they'll likely fly the 40-year-old aircraft when they fight next. The replacement, the V-22 Osprey, is years from being battle-ready -- and it may never be. Internal program documents obtained by The News & Observer show that the groundbreaking tilt-rotor aircraft -- 20 years and $14.7 billion in the making -- is failing two critical tests it was supposed to have passed several years ago:
* carrying a 5-ton cannon, an essential part of its mission; and
* keeping its balance with the maximum load of fuel necessary for making
2,100-mile trips across the Atlantic. The two tasks -- lifting 5 tons and flying 2,100 miles -- are essential, said Bill Lawrence of Fort Worth, Texas, a pilot and former V-22 test program manager. In military jargon, they are known as key performance parameters. Failure to meet them can cause a program to be canceled, although that is rare in expensive weapons systems developed over decades. "If we don't get a machine to do the key performance parameters, then it won't do the missions we need it to do,"
Lawrence said. "That raises the question: Why are we buying this aircraft?" The Marines want to buy 360 Ospreys, and the Air Force and Navy plan to buy 98. A joint program of Bell Helicopter and Boeing, the Osprey program has steadily increased in price; it is now estimated to cost $48.3 billion if all the planned planes are built. Each aircraft will now cost more than $105 million. The aircraft has been troubled on several fronts. Four Ospreys have crashed, killing 30, including one near Jacksonville in 2000 that killed four Marines. A scandal at Marine Corps Air Station New River in Onslow County, home of the first Osprey squadron, resulted in two Marine officers' being disciplined in 2001 for doctoring maintenance records. The Osprey can roll over and lose control when descending too rapidly at low forward speeds. Unlike helicopters, it cannot autorotate, or land safely if it loses power. And problems continue to plague the hydraulic system, computers and firefighting system. Col. Dan Schultz, the V-22 program manager at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland, did not answer questions for this report. Ward Carroll, spokesman for the V-22 program, said engineers are identifying risks and acting so that the key requirements won't be missed. The internal documents were "pre-decisional and proprietary," he said. "We are not at a place to comment publicly," Carroll said. "We can't run a program like this in public."
The Osprey remains the Marines' top aviation priority, Lt. Gen. Emil R. Bedard told a subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 9. "The MV-22's increased range, speed, payload and survivability will generate truly transformational tactical and operational capabilities," Bedard said in a written statement. Great expectations The Osprey's design is unlike that of any other flying machine. It takes off like a helicopter, then tilts its huge rotors forward and flies like an airplane. That combination of maneuverability and speed has led to bold expectations. The Marines tout the Osprey's ability to fly to any trouble spot on the globe within hours, quickly responding to the seizure of an embassy or the evacuation of civilians.
Helicopters, by contrast, must be folded up and transported by ship or cargo aircraft. They also think the Osprey will transform the movement of Marines and weapons into battle. Its greater range means that the V-22 can fly from a ship around the enemy's positions and drop off Marines to attack from the rear, they say. Yet those expectations require missions that the Osprey now struggles to perform: flying 2,100 miles with one aerial refueling, and lifting a 5-ton load in a sling and carrying it 50 nautical miles. The 5-ton load was designed with artillery in mind. Marines dropped on the ground need bigger guns than the weapons they carry on their backs. Marines need artillery that kills, slows or stops the movement of enemy forces, suppresses their weapons system and demoralizes them. The Marines, in conjunction with the Army, are developing a new 5-ton howitzer, Lt. Gen. Robert Magnus explained to a House Armed Services subcommittee meeting March 20. And, Magnus said in prepared testimony, it will be lighter, "allowing the howitzer to be rapidly air-delivered by the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor."
Yet it's doubtful the Osprey can carry the cannon at all. Not 'rocket science' Two weeks before Magnus spoke to Congress, lifting the howitzer was on the agenda at a meeting of V-22 program managers at Patuxent River Naval Air Station. At that meeting, Mike Merritt of Jahn Corp., an Osprey subcontractor, outlined the "increasing level of technical issues" facing the program, internal documents show. More titanium hydraulic tubes were failing in testing. There were more mission computer failures, in which the "root cause is elusive." There were failures in the fire suppression system, of which the long-term suitability is in doubt. Merritt wrote that the aircraft was at high risk of being late and not able to carry the 5-ton load. The reason: The Osprey is getting heavier. The craft now weighs 33,400 pounds and will grow heavier as more demands are added. The need for stronger floors and an on-board gun, for example, will add a thousand pounds or more.
The Osprey cannot afford the extra pounds. The weight growth, combined with overstated projections about the Osprey's performance, means that the craft cannot carry enough fuel to lift the cannon and fly it 50 miles. "They may have enough fuel to start the engine, they might even taxi, but they aren't going to pick up that howitzer," said Harry Dunn of Merritt Island, Fla., a retired Air Force colonel and engineer who is one of the program's biggest critics. "The low fuel lights will come on when you're still on the ground." In fact, the Osprey has never carried the lightweight artillery piece. In 1999, it lifted a 9,300-pound prototype off the ground. The aircraft never flew anywhere and set it down after hovering for 25 minutes.
To pass the tests for external lift, the V-22 program had the Osprey lift a concrete slab weighing 11,300 pounds, at sea level, and fly around the New River Marine Air Station. The concrete slab test was unrealistic, said Carlton Meyer of Richmond, Calif., a former Marine officer and publisher of the online warfare magazine g2mil.com. The concrete slab has much less aerodynamic drag than the howitzer, which almost doubles the drag of the aircraft, experts say. Lifting the howitzer and carrying it 50 miles is not a complicated test, Meyer said. Other flight tests are complex or more involved, such as determining how fast the aircraft can descend without losing control, or testing the Osprey aboard a ship. "Either you can do it, or you can't," Meyer said. "This isn't rocket science. Obviously, they are avoiding it. If they did 10 or 20 loads in one day, from point A to point B, I'll be very happy."
Program officials say the external lift tests are scheduled to be conducted in late 2004. How many Marines fit? Some doubt that the Osprey can accomplish another core mission: carrying 24 fully-equipped Marines into battle. The inside of the Osprey is smaller than the CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter, which has room for 24. The close quarters drew some critical comments from crew members during test flights in 1999 and 2000, according to excerpts from a database maintained by the Commander Navy Operational Test and Evaluation Force:
* "Knees are intertwined together. Backpacks are on top of knees. ... In my opinion, egressing in the water will be an absolute disaster."
* "Not enough room for 24 combat ready troops and air crew."
* "Crowded cabin conditions and unfriendly design of seat belts eats up an unacceptable amount of time in loading troops."
Philip Coyle, the Pentagon's chief weapons tester during the 1990s, said even the Marines' grit and can-do spirit can't make the cramped cabin fit 24 Marines with their rucksacks and weapons. "They may have come close, but they can't do 24," Coyle said. "They may have done 18."
The General Accounting Office, Congress' watchdog, says 15 to 18 combat Marines might be the limit. Fuel tank falls short The Marines plan to send the Osprey into trouble spots anywhere in the world, on its own, within hours. To gain this global reach, Marines will install an auxiliary fuel tank inside the V-22 to allow it to fly 2,100 nautical miles with one aerial refueling. The Osprey performed this flight in 1999, but with an auxiliary tank likely to leak or explode in a crash landing. Since then, the program has been unable to develop an effective, crashworthy fuel tank. The extra tank throws the Osprey out of balance, Merritt's presentation said. Even without the auxiliary tank, the small center of gravity requires delicate movements in the plane. When fast-roping out the back ramp, Marines must move methodically in small groups, waiting for each to hit the ground before the next group leaves its seats. Without a suitable auxiliary tank, the Osprey falls about 400 miles short of its 2,100-mile self-deployment mission, according to Merritt's report.
The shorter range puts the Osprey closer in league with helicopters and makes two refuelings necessary to reach Europe or Hawaii from the United States. The Osprey was originally supposed to be in service in 1991. Work on the weight and balance problems will add months or years to the schedule. Meanwhile, the Marines will keep using the CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter. Most are older than the pilots flying them. When the last one rolled off the assembly line in February 1971, it could carry 24 Marines or 5 tons in a sling. Time has has taken its toll. Combat, crashes and age have whittled the original fleet of 600 down to 228. The Marines have overhauled the Sea Knights with new parts and systems, but the basic frame remains.
Decades of structural and metal fatigue have limited the Sea Knight to 14 passengers or 2 tons externally. Still, the Sea Knight flies on. Marine pilots flew several earlier this month as part of the Special Forces rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who was held captive in an Iraqi hospital. One helicopter snagged a heavy support cable on a radio antenna near the hospital and almost crashed. The pilot regained control after 15 seconds and was able to deliver a squad of Army Rangers to the hospital. The Marines began planning to replace the Sea Knight in early 1978. The first contract for the tilt-rotor was awarded in 1983. Even program officials acknowledge that the V-22 may be the longest developmental program in military history. "I first flew it in 1989, and we've still got years to go," Lawrence said. "It's staggering, I can't get my mind around this. It's the most ill-conceived program, and they are throwing gargantuan amounts of money at it." Congress has the final say whether a weapons system gets money.
From year to year, the Department of Defense proposes the programs it wants funded. The Defense Acquisition Board will meet May 20 to decide whether the Osprey program should receive an additional year's funding of $1.8 billion.