Set to Soar
The MV-22 Osprey overcomes its troubled past but is too fast for current armed escorts. Will the Cobra Zulu copter provide a solution?
By SUE A. LACKEY, Associate Editor
The MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft is the centerpiece of the Marine Corps’ transformation to sea-based operations and Distributed Operations, its new concept of maneuver warfare.
Designed as a replacement for the aging medium-lift CH-46 helicopter, the MV-22 program was dogged by two horrific crashes in 2000, and hydraulic and software problems. But the Osprey appears to have overcome its troubled past by meeting or exceeding all performance standards during its final operational evaluation, completed in July.
Now the Marine Corps faces the greater problem of reconciling production time, budget and war requirements as it struggles to transition from an aging fleet to 21st-century warfare.
The Osprey is designed to reach new heights of speed and stealth. Its tiltrotor nacelles enable it to take off from a landing zone vertically, as a helicopter, and immediately transform to a fixed-wing aircraft — going from zero to 180 knots in 12 seconds. (Top speed is 300 knots, compared to 140 knots in a conventional helicopter.)
The rapid transformation of the rotors also gives the aircraft increased stealth when landing, and allows it maneuver capability that greatly exceeds current helicopter limits. With a radius of 300 miles and a capacity of 24 troops, the Osprey is ideally suited for delivering infantry to over-the-horizon locations from a sea-based platform 110 miles offshore.
In the larger picture of Marine Corps transformation, the Osprey is the first piece to be fielded in a new fleet of offshore connectors, next-generation fighters and naval platforms. It enables Marines to deliver the fight farther, faster and from a permanent sea base. The Corps envisions its transformation to be nearly complete by 2015, assuming production and budget requirements remain on course.
In the interim, the MV-22’s speed and advanced technology have created a new set of problems. The Osprey is a medium-lift aircraft designed to insert troops and equipment; it does not have assault capability, nor is it a heavy cargo craft. Because of its superior performance, current rotor aircraft, including protective escorts, cannot keep up with it. With only a .50-caliber ramp-mounted machine gun, this leaves the MV-22 potentially vulnerable and unprotected.
A tiltrotor fighter escort comparable to the MV-22 is on the drawing board at Bell Helicopter’s experimental division, but both Bell and Marine officials say the aircraft may not be available to the fleet for 15-20 years.
“We built an airplane I can’t escort,” said Lt. Gen. Michael A. Hough, deputy commandant for Aviation at Headquarters Marine Corps. “I knew all along we didn’t have an escort. I also knew I was going to make the
MV-22 fly. The problem was, I couldn’t convince anybody of that — not enough to give me the money to start the escort.
“No one believed in 2001 we would ever fly this again — the MV-22 was still in pieces. So now we’ve pulled off a miracle. Not only does the MV-22 fly, it is even better than what we said it would be. Now I need something that goes as fast as this, because I’ve got an airplane that out-flies and out-ranges everything we’ve got. The bridge [between the Osprey and a fighter variant] is the Cobra Zulu.”
Cobra Zulu is a program designed to upgrade the Corps’ AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopter, which has a maximum speed of 147 knots and a radius of 150 miles. The more robust version of the Super Cobra will be completed in 2012, but the first MV-22 squadron enters the fleet in 2007.
Until the revamped Cobras are produced, Hough is pushing for acquisition of an advanced prototype unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Though not currently in production, he said the advanced UAVs could begin flying at approximately the same time as the MV-22 hits the fleet.
“We can do one of two things,” Hough said. “Never fly the MV-22 outside the range of the Cobra, or mitigate it another way, knowing full well there’s no 100-percent solution. We mitigate the risk by putting a UAV that goes 240 knots, that can fly for eight hours, launch an hour ahead of time, with sensors hooked up to a third-generation Forward Looking Infrared (imaging system).
“If the MV-22s are just an hour behind (the UAV), the MV-22 can control the UAV (from the cockpit). If they see something, they then have the flexibility to land in an alternate spot. Even if we had an escort, I would still use that UAV. It’s their eyes and ears out there, and they never have to go into a situation wondering if their intel’s OK.”
The MV-22 and its next-generation partners are designed to be housed on the Navy amphibious assault ships, the LHD and the LHA(R). The first LHA(R), designed strictly as an aviation platform, will be produced beginning in 2009 and enter the fleet in 2012. Until then, the Osprey will have to fit into the decking space on the current Tarawa-class LHAs. Although the Osprey’s stowed footprint is only slightly longer than the CH-46 it replaces, it has operational variances that will require modifications to the current fleet.
“We have to make some minor modifications to the island and to the catwalks to handle the downwash that the MV-22 produces,” said Rear Adm. John H. Bowling III, deputy director for expeditionary warfare. “The current rotor tip clearance is 8 feet 8 inches; we’re trying to get that out to 12 feet 4 inches. Granted, you’ll have fewer MV-22 and Joint Strike Fighter Short Take Off and Vertical Landing aircraft, but the capability will be higher because of the technology. We’ve based the number of aircraft on the lift capability, so we’ll have the same capability (with fewer aircraft).”
Bowling said the modifications to the LHAs and LHDs can be done pierside, and completed by the time the MV-22 squadrons begin joining the fleet.
The Osprey has a maximum external lift capacity of 10,000 pounds. The Corps’ new Lightweight 155mm Howitzer field artillery piece, at 9,800 pounds, was designed to accommodate the MV-22’s lift capacity.
Also integral to the utilization of the aircraft is the Expeditionary Fire Support System (EFSS), a lightweight, low-cost vehicle system ($5-6 million per year for six years) designed specifically to fit inside the MV-22. Consisting of a new 120mm extended-range towed mortar, ammo trailer and two vehicles, the EFSS is being developed jointly with Special Operations Command.
“From the perspective of the MV-22 that we’re fielding, we’re trying to make sure that we get that organic fire support in so that those forces have immediate indirect fire support,” said retired Col. John Garner, program manager of the Lightweight 155 Howitzer and EFSS system for Marine Corps Systems Command. “Depending on how far you’re going and what threat you’re facing, you have the option of taking either the 120mm mortar or the lightweight, neither of which is a capability our current systems give us.”
The EFSS is an accelerated program, with production scheduled to coincide with the MV-22. While the Osprey will join the fleet at a rate of one nine-member squadron per year starting in 2007, the compact EFSS will also be utilized by Marine Expeditionary Units in conjunction with the CH-53E. The Lightweight Howitzer has completed testing and is already in the field.
The first Osprey squadrons, reduced from a normal complement of 12 due to production demands, will initially have to integrate into the fleet without the support craft they are designed to work with. The Marine Corps has mitigated many of the short-term gaps this creates in its transformation program, but the ultimate success of the MV-22 will depend on the continuing largesse of Congress and the timing of aircraft and ship production.
“I have the three big pieces,” said Hough. “I’ve got the ship, I’ve got the MV-22 and I’ve got the Joint Strike Fighter. Now I’ve got to make them relevant (with current resources).”