In the Hall of Fame for troubled defense programs, the V-22 Osprey probably deserves its own wing. While the tilt-rotor aircraft is a revolutionary piece of technology, it has been plagued by a long development cycle, punctuated by cost overruns and a series of highly-publicized (and deadly) accidents. The aircraft finally entered combat service in Iraq earlier this year. You may have seen a pair of Ospreys in the background during Senator John McCain's recent visit to Baghdad. Talk about product placement.
Unfortunately, the V-22 program has hit another snag. According to Bill Sweetman of Aviation Week, the Pentagon's program manager dropped a major bombshell during the annual Navy League show; turns out that the aircraft's engines are wearing out faster than anticipated, and the Osprey fleet may need a new power plant at some point in the future.
Fortunately, the Navy already has an engine in mind: the General Electric GE38-1B, under development for the CH-53K helicopter. The GE engine is a derivative of the power plant originally intended for the Osprey. Eventually, the Pentagon settled on a lower-cost alternative, the AE 1107C--the same engines that may need replacement.
On the down side, re-engining portions of the V-22 fleet will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more. And, if the services wind up using both engines, there will be increased expenses for spare parts, maintenance training and other items. So the actual price tag for new engines could easily pass $1 billion, making the Osprey program even more expensive.
At one point in the early 1990s, the V-22 program was on the verge of cancellation. It was saved through the efforts of Congressional supporters, anxious to preserve defense dollars and jobs in their districts. Almost two decades later, it's too late to get rid of the Osprey. The military will muddle through and Congress will find the money to keep the planes flying. In the meantime, we can only wonder how that money might have been better spent, had the V-22 been scrapped all those years ago.