Back in late December of 2013, after ground fire somewhere in South Sudan bloodied a CV-22 flight and forced an ambitious Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) to abort with four injuries, I detailed how the V-22’s Operational Maneuver From The Sea (OMFTS) origins–and resulting inability to adequately suppress ground fire and lack of armor–made the platform “not quite ready” to conduct NEOs in unsettled, urban environments. (article is here)
Well, it only took about
six two months of gestation, but it seems that Special Operations Command agrees with little ‘ole NextNavy.com.
Somebody reminded me this evening that I wrote in December:
A baby gunship (and–cough–far better intelligence collection/coordination from/with the diplomats on the ground-cough.) might be a nice addition to any future CV-22-backed NEO Mission Package in a relatively insecure environment.
Well, I had forgotten that, as early as mid February 2014, the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command revealed that they were developing CV-22 Gunship concepts. From IHS Janes 360:
While the concept is still in its early stages, Col Ropella hinted that the CV-22 may be fitted with forward-firing missiles, but beyond that he did not reveal any further details. However, when asked about the possibility of high-energy weapons, such as lasers, being fitted, he said: “All things are on the table. Some engineers at NAVAIR [Naval Air Systems Command] probably have dreams about [lasers] on the V-22.”
Given the V-22’s tiltrotor configuration and nearly 12 m diameter rotorblades, forward-firing munitions could not be carried on underwing hardpoints. Instead, the aircraft would either have to employ ramp-mounted or cargo bay-stored canister munitions, similar to those carried by the USMC’s KC-130J Harvest HAWK Hercules gunship, or sponson-mounted stub-wings.
A side-firing cannon/machine gun could be fitted, but this would involve some structural re-modelling as the V-22 does not have a paratrooper door on the left-side aircraft fuselage, and the door on the right side is located forward of the rotors, which would present safety issues for the aircraft.
Those plans—or at least a variation–is moving ahead. News broke at the SOFIC Conference that SOCOM is looking to put armor and a forward-firing gun on the CV-22. Here’s Navy Times’ Paul McLeary reporting on his SOFIC brief:
After three of AFSOC’s Ospreys were shot up over Juba, South Sudan in December, resulting in the injuries of four Marines on board, the command realized that the birds needed better armor.
DiSebastian said that “we’re looking to put armor protection on those aircraft in under 140 days” and they’re about a third of the way through that.
SOCOM leadership is also working on beefing up the firepower on the aircraft, testing new forward-firing weapons that it wants to put in place by the end of this year.
If that seems like a pretty quick schedule to those who are used to the years-long process of getting things done in the Pentagon bureaucracy, Lt. Col. DiSebastian said that’s the whole point.
The gun program “is something that if we went to big Air Force or big Navy acquisitions it would have been a five-year program,” he said, but since the command is doing the research and development itself, “companies are looking to put a capability on this aircraft and shoot it by the end of this year.”
I’m going to chalk this up as a win.
But there’s something else in this story that is, I think, more important, albeit a bit boring. From Lt. Col. John DiSebastian, SOCOM’s C-130 and CV-22 program director:
“But if you’ve got a $100,000 or a $50,000 widget that can improve the sustainment, capability, or ops of the aircraft, then bring that to us.”
DiSebastian stressed that he’s looking for opportunities to do low-cost modifications on the tilt-rotor aircraft, hinting that the playing field is still pretty wide open as the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) is continuing to refine and tweak how the CV-22 is employed.
The key words there are “sustainment” and “refine and tweak”. Though nobody asks about it in the media anymore, I strongly suspect sustainment of these innovative platforms is a lot harder and more costly than the U.S. Marine Corps is really ready to publicly admit. The guns and the armor might attract eyeballs and clicks, but forward reliability is, often, what wins in the end…(isn’t the IG report on Osprey reliability classified? How about some follow-up on that old thing–even if it turns into a “lies, dammed lies and….statistics” type story, it’s worth poking every so often….)
Anyway. We’re making progress on figuring this tiltrotor platform out. I’ll close with this–something I said last time and that I’ll say again here:
To me, the MV-22 is still proving itself. It is still a overly-specialized (almost a–cough–single-mission) logistical support platform. But once the Services come to terms that this platform is both enabled and constrained by its OMFTS developmental origins, and then decide to cough up the cash and equipment (ISR assets, fire support, maintenance etc) required for the Osprey to overcome the OMFTS limitations (and capitalize on the platform’s advantages, too), then MV-22 will continue its slow, costly march towards multi-mission success.