November 18, 2006 The United States Special Forces have been the best equipped in the world for a long time, though the gap widened considerably on Thursday with the first delivery of the CV-22 Osprey to the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field, Florida. The CV-22 is the Air Force version of the V-22 Osprey, a tiltrotor aircraft that combines the speed and range of fixed wing aircraft with the vertical flight performance of a helicopter. With its engine nacelles and rotors in vertical position, it can take off, land and hover like a helicopter, but once airborne its engine nacelles can be rotated to convert the aircraft to a turboprop airplane capable of high-speed, high-altitude flight. The CV-22 offers unprecedented speed in the ingress and extraction of special forces into any terrain.
Bell-Boeing will provide performance-based support for the first nine production CV-22s for aircraft maintenance, reliability, supply and repairs, technical data and interactive electronic technical manuals, engineering, information technology, field service and logistics support. Five of the nine aircraft will be assigned to the 8th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, and the remaining four already are assigned to the 71st Special Operations Squadron at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.
The CV-22 was jointly designed, produced and supported by Bell Helicopter Textron and Boeing Integrated Defense Systems.
Just in case the advantages of the CV-22 and its almost identical brethren the V-22 aren’t entirely obvious, the following recently published briefing by Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute highlights why the Osprey is one system the military needs more of right now:
The Bush Administration is projecting that defense spending will fall from four percent of the economy today to three percent at the beginning of the next decade. In the past, such declines have hit procurement accounts harder than other types of spending, because it is easier to delay new weapons than it is to cut military pay, healthcare benefits and operational outlays. The services have already begun trimming their weapons programs. For example, the Air Force wants to end production of the C-17, its only modern jet airlifter, while the Navy and Marine Corps have proposed deleting 169 planes from their 2008-2013 spending plans.
Against this backdrop, critics are complaining that some of the weapons being developed by the services don't seem to have much to do with winning the global war on terrorism. Programs like the Joint Strike Fighter and the Navy's next-generation destroyer may be needed to counter future conventional threats, the critics say, but right now all the threats seem to be unconventional -- terrorists, insurgents, weapons traffickers and so on. The critics have a point, especially given how poorly the fight seems to be going in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, there is at least one new military system about to enter the force that is relevant right now, and badly needed in places like Iraq. That is the Marine Corps' V-22 Osprey, the world's first operational tilt-rotor aircraft. A tilt-rotor combines the vertical agility of helicopters with the speed and range of fixed-wing planes, providing unique versatility. It not only can land anywhere -- on mountains, in jungles, on storm-tossed ships -- but it can get to such places even when they are far, far away, because the Osprey has a range of over a thousand miles. In other words, you can fly a V-22 from Washington to New Orleans without stopping for fuel, not a mission you'd want to attempt with a regular helicopter. A fixed-wing airplane can make that trip also, but if the runways in the Big Easy are flooded, it can't land. A V-22 can make the trip and land, wherever there is a dry spot of ground.
It doesn't require a degree from Professor Rumsfeld's School for the Truly Transformational to figure out that this a special capability, one well-suited to a world of irregular warfare, unconventional threats, and homeland disasters. In fact, the Marine Corps figured it out a generation ago, and has stuck with the Osprey through a rocky development effort reminiscent of the trials faced a generation earlier by the helicopters it will replace. But the Osprey was vindicated last year in a very successful operational evaluation, and it will be deployed to Iraq next year. The Marine Corps plans to produce 21 V-22's in 2008 and 30 per year in each of the following five years. A gee-whiz special-operations version for the Air Force will be fielded in 2009.
As the Osprey enters the force in the years ahead, planners in the Army and other services are going to be kicking themselves that they didn't invest more in tilt-rotors. Why buy conventional twin-engine turboprops to carry cargo to remote bases when you can carry three tons of supplies 500 miles, and not even need a runway once you arrive? Why struggle to trade off the advantages of a helicopter versus an airplane in conducting difficult combat missions when a single airframe combines the best qualities of both? In the fight for relevance the V-22 is a clear winner, and the only question is why it took so long for some experts to figure that out.