By Renae Merle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 14, 2007
After more than 20 years in development at a cost of billions of dollars, the long-troubled V-22 Osprey will head to Iraq in September for its first combat missions, the Marine Corps said yesterday.
The tilt-rotor Osprey, a helicopter-airplane hybrid, has survived attempts by the Pentagon leadership to cancel it, criticism of its rising cost and unique design, and three fatal accidents since 1992. The aircraft, made by Bell Helicopter and Boeing, can take off, land and hover like a helicopter, then turn its rotors to fly straight ahead like a conventional plane. It will operate out of al-Asad air base in central Iraq for seven months.
"The story of how we got here is a long one," Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, said at a morning news conference at the Pentagon. "I'll just say that the quantum leap in technology that this aircraft will bring to the fight has been a road marked by some setbacks, lots of sacrifices and the success of these Marines standing before you today."
A report in 1983 by the Pentagon's office of program analysis and evaluation concluded that the plane's concept was flawed. In the late 1980s and early '90s, Dick Cheney, the Defense secretary at the time, tried to cancel it. The aircraft's three fatal crashes -- one in 1992 and two in 2000 -- killed 26 Marines and four civilians. In 2001, allegations emerged that maintenance records for the aircraft had been falsified, which the commander of the Osprey's maintenance squadron later admitted was done to make the aircraft appear more serviceable than it was. The Osprey fleet was briefly grounded this year after the military found a glitch in a computer chip that could cause the aircraft to lose control.
Despite the project's problems, the Marine Corps has stayed loyal to the aircraft, arguing that the Osprey was now safe and needed in combat. "The Marine Corps has built its entire future concept of warfare around the V-22," said Loren Thompson, a defense industry analyst.
The Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 263, which is based in Jacksonville, N.C., will deploy to Iraq with 10 Ospreys after more training, including time in the desert in Yuma, Ariz.
The Osprey's main mission in Iraq will be to transport troops and perform rescue missions. Marine Corps officials promote its ability to go farther and carry a bigger load than any of the helicopters it will replace, including the CH-46 Sea Knight, a Vietnam-era chopper that has crashed several times in Iraq.
Lt. Gen. John Castellaw, the deputy Marine commandant for aviation, said the CH-46 "is old in the tooth, and its capability in terms of range and payload is not what we want."
The V-22 would be able to survive the kind of attacks that have brought down helicopters in Iraq, Marine Corps officials said. "By the time you see us and we're past you, the best you're going to do is one of those revenge shoots," Lt. Col. Paul Rock, commander of Squadron 263, said yesterday in a clearing near Quantico Marine Base in Virginia, where two dozen reporters had been flown to watch the Ospreys in action. As Rock spoke, two Ospreys kicked up wind for about 100 yards around.
Bell Helicopter and Boeing have produced 54 Ospreys -- 46 for the Marines and eight for the Air Force. About $20 billion has been spent on the program, and the military is expected to ultimately pay $50.5 billion for the 458 aircraft it wants, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
In March, the Government Accountability Office estimated the cost of each aircraft at about $109 million, up from the $40 million that each was projected to cost when development started in the 1980s.
Skeptics argue that the Osprey is too expensive to be used widely or put in risky situations. It may be suitable for specialty missions such as long-range rescue or special-operations deployments, but "those relatively few missions don't justify putting all of the Marines' chips behind the V-22," said Jennifer Gore, spokeswoman for the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group. The Marine Corps could buy fewer Ospreys -- 50 or so -- and make a larger purchase of a cheaper helicopter, she said.