Tuesday, March 18, 2008


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.


halojones-fan said...

We've got tilt-rotor because the Marines fell in love with the idea of tilt-rotor. The Cheyenne was faster than the Osprey and less complicated, but it looked like a regular helicopter so the Marines didn't want it.

Scott said...

I just saw one fly over yesterday. It's a beautiful airplane, err helicopter. Nice and quiet compared to the chinooks.

Ken Prescott said...

Your notion of killing the Osprey in the early 1990s ignores one key fact.

The USMC absolutely needs a replacement for the CH-46 helicopter. We were getting "flight restriction notices" (a polite of saying the aircraft was grounded) about four times a year in the early 1990s for such minor problems as rotor blades falling off in flight.

As it was, the program barely survived the two attempts to cancel it, and the reduced funding contributed to (a) the decision to use the cheap (in both senses) engines and (b) the extended development troubles the aircraft experienced.

halojones-fan said...

ken: "The USMC needs to replace the CH-46" and "The USMC needs the Osprey" are two different statements. As I pointed out, there were legacy technologies that did the same job just as well; and indeed, if the problem were simply age then the Marines could have had a bunch of new CH-46 built.

Indeed, if the USMC were so desperately in need of a CH-46 replacement, then how can you explain the Osprey's thirty-year development cycle?

Wanderlust said...

As for top speed, AH-56 was approx 246mph (214 knots); whereas Boeing's V-22 website lists V-22 cruising speed as 315mph (275 knots) and top speed 353mph (305 knots). That's a big difference over long distances. Additionally one would have to consider fuel consumption, of which I don't have comparative data.

The thing that killed the AH-56 project (Cheyenne) was not technical complexity in the helicopter's design, but rather, complexity in software debugging of its fire control system. Anyone who was involved with the RAH-66 project (Comanche) will know firsthand the truth of which I speak. Oh, and I shouldn't forget little technical details such as weight, airframe grounding, and converting the Eurocopter's empennage to accommodate stealthy design features.

I will give halojones credit for his comment regarding the military's penchant for "falling in love" with certain types of technology over others. CarterCopters has been pushing (pardon the pun) the unloaded rotor design of the AH-56 for years, with no apparent commercial or military success. Ditto for Boeing's own attempt at cross-rotor technology, a la X-50.

PCSSEPA said...

It is never too late to kill a bad program. The costs are sunk and there is no reason to throw good money after bad.