Few military projects are more notorious than the V-22 Osprey. The name has become synonymous with flawed government contracting and planning. Originally conceived in 1980 in the wake of the botched Iranian Hostage Crisis rescue mission, the Osprey was supposed to represent a new type of aircraft that could land and takeoff vertically but also carry plane sized equipment and personnel. So ends the theory.
What followed was an amazing waste of money. The Osprey was first budgeted at $2.5 billion in 1986, by 2008 $27 billion had been spent, with another $27.2 billion needed to complete production. Yes $2.5 billion to an estimated $54.2 billion. And yes, in that time period other aircraft were developed to successfully fulfill US combat needs. And yes, no other country is even within striking distance of America’s air capacity. Of course, other countries aren’t interested in competing with America for developing anything like the Osprey, because the damn thing doesn’t work.
In 2001 numerous officers were relieved of duty due to their falsifying records to try to make the Osprey seem like it worked. In 2007 the Pentagon deployed the aircraft leading to condemnation from many that the Osprey was too unsafe for combat use.
The saga of the V-22 – the battles over its future on Capitol Hill, a performance record that is spotty at best, a long, determined quest by the Marines to get what they wanted – demonstrates how Washington works (or, rather, doesn’t). It exposes the compromises that are made when narrow interests collide with common sense. It is a tale that shows how the system fails at its most significant task, by placing in jeopardy those we count on to protect us. For even at a stratospheric price, the V-22 is going into combat shorthanded.
As a result of decisions the Marine Corps made over the past decade, the aircraft lacks a heavy-duty, forward-mounted machine gun to lay down suppressing fire against forces that will surely try to shoot it down. And if the plane’s two engines are disabled by enemy fire or mechanical trouble while it’s hovering, the V-22 lacks a helicopter’s ability to coast roughly to the ground – something that often saved lives in Vietnam. In 2002 the Marines abandoned the requirement that the planes be capable of autorotating (as the maneuver is called), with unpowered but spinning helicopter blades slowly letting the aircraft land safely.
And now President Obama has decided to give the Osprey a significant level of public support by including it in the Marine One air fleet that accompanies the president in his travels. Of course, Obama may be pandering to the Defense Department and military contractors but he doesn’t have a death wish.
The Ospreys will not carry Obama himself, but the presence of the new, green-painted birds in Marine Helicopter Squadron One is long-sought vindication for a program that took some 25 years to develop, was canceled twice and has claimed a number of lives along the way.
Wasteful programs like the V-22 Osprey are exactly what someone hoping for change should not be endorsing. The Osprey is a case study in how not to run a government program, and if we truly are in the age of austerity the last signal DoD and weapons makers should be receiving is we want more Ospreys.
Photo by United States Navy under public domain.