MIGHTY TACTICAL

How America's most troubled aircraft will define the future

The V-22 Osprey had a horrible development process and rocky roll-out, but has done well in an operational environment despite a few high-profile crashes. But as the Army decides on what it's future aviation assets will look like, the tilt-rotor design may still define military flight for a generation.

(Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Andre Dakis)

The V-22 Osprey has a spotty safety record, costs twice as much as originally advertised, and has a cost-per-flight-hour higher than a B-1B Lancer or F-22 Raptor when including acquisition, modification, and maintenance costs. So, why are all four Department of Defense branches of the military looking to fly the V-22 or something similar?


U.S. Marine Corps parachutists free fall from an MV-22 Osprey at 10,000 feet above the drop zone at Fort A.P. Hill, Va. on Jan. 17, 2000.

(U.S. Navy photo by Vernon Pugh)

First, let's take a look at the Osprey's weaknesses, because they are plentiful. The tilt-rotor aircraft is heavy, and keeping it aloft with two rotors requires a lot of lift, producing a lot of rotorwash. The rotorwash is so strong, in fact, that it's injured personnel before, and it forces troops attempting to fast rope from the bird must do so at higher altitudes amid greater turbulence.

Which, yes, is scary and legitimately dangerous.

Meanwhile, the Osprey causes more wear and tear on the ships and air fields from which it operates. The large amount and high temperatures of its exhaust tears apart launch surfaces. And its own acquisition and maintenance costs are high.

They're $100 million a pop, twice what they were initially expected to cost. And, after accounting for all costs, the Air Force estimates it pays almost $64,000 for every hour one of the planes is aloft. The maligned F-35A only costs an additional $4,000.

So, if the aircraft is dangerous and expensive, how could it possibly be the future of military aviation?

First, it's actually a fairly safe aircraft. While 2017 was a bad year for the Osprey, accounting for three Class A accidents, mishaps that cost the government $2 million or more, that only raised the Osprey's accident rate to 3.27 per 100,000 hours flown, only a little above the 2.72 average for aircraft across the Corps. Go to the start of 2017, before its worst period, and the rate is 1.93 (2017 was actually a bad year for Navy, Air Force, and Marine aviation as a whole).

So, not great, but worth bearing if the aircraft fills a particular role that you really need to fill.

U.S. Marines with India Company 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division attached to Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force, Crisis Response-Central Command conduct a tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel exercise August 19, 2018.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Teagan Fredericks)

And the V-22 does indeed fill a unique role. Its ability to fly like a plane most of the time but then hover like a helicopter when needed is changing everything from combat search and rescue to special operations insertions to replenishment at sea.

See, fixed-wing aircraft, planes, can typically fly farther and faster while carrying heavier loads than their rotary-wing brethren. But, rotary-wing aircraft, helicopters, can land on nearly any patch of flat, firm ground or ship deck. Tilt-rotor aircraft like the V-22 can do both, even though it can't do either quite as well.

It's a jack-of-all-trades sort of deal. Except, in this case, "Jack of All Trades" is master of a few, too. Take combat search and rescue. It's typically done with a helicopter because you need to be able to quickly land, grab the isolated personnel, and take off again, usually while far from a friendly airstrip. But the Osprey can do it at greater ranges and speeds than any helicopter.

Or take forward arming and refueling points, where the military sends personnel, fuel, and ammunition forward to allow helicopters to refuel and rearm closer to the fight. Setting these up requires that the military quickly moves thousands of pounds of fuel and ammo quickly, either by truck or aircraft.

Doing it with aircraft is faster, but requires a heavy lift aircraft that can land vertically or nearly so. Again, the V-22 can carry similar weight at much greater ranges than most other vertical lift aircraft. The Army's CH-47F has a "useful load" of 24,000 pounds and a range of 200 nautical miles. The Osprey boasts a 428 nautical mile range while still carrying 20,000 pounds. And, it can ferry back and forth faster, cruising at 306 mph ground speed compared to the Chinook's 180.

Air Force CV-22 in flight.

(U.S. Air Force)

Or look at Navy replenishment at sea, a job currently done by 27 C-2A Greyhounds, but the Navy is hoping to use 38 CMV-22Bs instead. When the CMV-22B uses rolling takeoffs and landings, it can carry over 57,000 pounds compared to the C-2A's 49,000. And it can carry heavy loads further, lifting 6,000 pounds on a 1,100-nautical mile trip while the C-2A carries 800 pounds for 1,000-nautical miles.

Even the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Forces set up for crisis response in Central Command and Africa use the V-22 because, again, the range and lifting capability. In this case, it allowed them to base the Marines at fewer places while still responding quickly across their area of operations to everything from embassy reinforcements and evacuations to supporting combat missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other locations.

Meanwhile, the Marines are looking to turn some V-22s into gunships, either by bolting the weapons onto aircraft that could still operate as troop transports or creating a combat-focused variant of the V-22, like a tilt-rotor AC-130. And the Marines also tapped the tilt-rotors to carry the President's staff and security when he travels in Marine 1.

So, why all the haters at places like War Is Boring? Well, the V-22 is very expensive. That $64,000-per-flight-hour price tag makes the Air Force version that branch's eighth most expensive plane. And getting the V-22 operationally superior to the C-2A required lots of expensive modifications and still doesn't allow it to deliver supplies in a hover on most warships because of the hot exhaust mentioned above.

So, the Navy had to make expensive modifications to an expensive tilt-rotor aircraft so that it could do the job of a cheaper fixed-wing aircraft. But if the original, fixed-wing aircraft had gotten the upgrades instead, there's a potential argument that it would've been made just as capable for much less.

Meanwhile, the V-22's safety problems are often over-hyped, but there are issues. The C-2A has had only one major operational incident since 1973. The V-22 had three last year. This problem of cost vs. added capability comes up every time the V-22 is suggested for a new mission. It's an expensive solution in every slot.

The Bell V-280 Valor is a proposed successor to the V-22.

(Manufacturer graphic, Bell Helicopters)

But when people on the opposite side make grand claims like, "Versatile V-22 Osprey Is The Most Successful New Combat System Since 9-11," they aren't exactly wrong. Despite all of the V-22's problems, the Army is considering tilt-rotors for its next generation of vertical lift aircraft and the rest of the Department of Defense is already flying the V-22s. That's because tilt-rotors offer capabilities that just can't currently be achieved with other designs.

An important note, though, is that the Army may not opt for the V-22, or a tilt-rotor at all. The two aircraft seemingly at the top of the Army's list for the Future Vertical Lift Program are the V-280—a Bell aircraft descended from the V-22, and the SB-1 Defiant—a compound helicopter design with two stacked rotor blades and a rear propeller. Boeing is part of the V-22 project, but actually backed Sikorsky and the SB-1 Defiant when it came time to look at the Army's future.

A manufacturer graphic showing the SB-1 Defiant, a proposed compound helicopter to replace the UH-60, picking up troops. The SB-1 Defiant is in competition with the V-280, a tilt-rotor successor to the V-22.

(Dylan Malysov, CC BY-SA 4.0)

So, while the troubled tilt-rotor has won over at least a few proponents in three of the DoD branches, it may fall short of garnering all four, especially if the Army decides that tilt-rotor acquisition and maintenance is too expensive.

Whichever way the Army goes, it will decide the face of military aviation for a decade. A few dozen V-22s have been sold to American allies, and the U.S. has bought a few hundred, but the Army wants its next generation of vertical lift assets to all be part of the same family, and it needs to replace 2,000 UH-60 Blackhawks and 3,000 other helicopters in coming decades.

Whatever America's largest military branch chooses will likely set the tone for follow-on American purchases as well as the fleets of dozens of allies. So, Bell has to prove that one of the military's most troubled and expensive aircraft is still the face of the future.