South Sudan Demonstrates The V-22 Osprey Still Faces Operational Challenges:

by admin on December 22, 2013

ospreydownmv1So…the CV-22 Osprey chalks up more combat experience in South Sudan, with three CV-22 Osprey aircraft apparently taking ground fire on descent into what was probably the Osprey’s first noncombatant evacuation operation (NEO). Four of the approximately 46 aboard were reportedly hurt, and the Ospreys aborted their mission and diverted to an alternative landing zone. (A good summary report is here)

Good thing is that the aircraft took hits and kept flying. I don’t know where the craft were hit, but the fact that these complex engineering showpieces flew for 550 miles after being hit is, at least, another positive demonstration that the airframe is a bit more tough and resilient than critics expected.

But…the mission was left undone, leaving us to again wonder if we are still seeing the services struggle to slot this specialized airframe into roles and missions for which it is–as yet–unsuited.

Given that the details are scanty, I offer a few items for speculative discussion:

Is this the right airframe to conduct a Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) in unsettled, urban environments?

The Services are still figuring out how to use this airframe. And despite the fact that some within the Marine Corps reminding everybody that the airframe is NOT a helicopter, the Services (including the Marines) persist in trying to treat the V-22 like helicopters–the legacy platforms the V-22 replaced. At this point, attempts to use the V-22 like a helicopter fail–simply on cost grounds alone (read some additional discussion on this topic here).  But efforts to immediately shove the newly-arrived CV-22 right into the niche vacated by the highly specialized MH-53M Pave Low–a platform that developed and matured over the course of years and years of combat experience–that is a recipe for a real disaster. The CV-22 is a new platform and must be used differently.

I’ll say this–The core mission of the CV-22–conduct long-range infiltration, exfiltration and resupply Special Operators–is unimpeachable, because, as a platform borne of the “Operational Maneuver From the Sea” era, the Osprey became a highly-specialized airframe built to sneak around and operate where the adversary isn’t (discussion here and here). That’s the whole reason why this freaky “land-like-a-helo, fly-like-a-plane” transformer was made, and that’s why we are having some challenges in effectively utilizing this airframe. Quiet, well-supported infiltrations and exfiltrations are one thing–but a NEO is an entirely different (albeit usually a docile and routine) animal.

The refusal of the services to recognize the strengths and weaknesses that stem from this platform’s OMFTS origin continue to concern me:

Does the airframe lack the ability to adequately suppress ground fire? One of the reasons the CV-22 may not be a good piece of kit for complex urban environments is simply that the aircraft lacks weaponry. In Afghanistan, the MV-22’s bolt-on Belly-Mounted Chain Gun was, at best, a heavy, nausea-inducing technical kludge (which was never used), and the tail ramp gun was a weak interim solution. But compared to the old MH-53M Pave Low’s ample armament, the stock, off-the-shelf CV-22 (assuming these haven’t been modified by the spooks too much) has little to suppress local fire by itself.  Without excellent ISR and something overhead/alongside to support, the Osprey is not something I’d want to be flying into a potentially hot LZ (leaving is a different matter entirely).

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.

Is the airframe sufficiently armored? It will be interesting to hear who got shot where and with what. If it was a lucky shot into the open rear of the aircraft that caused casualties, then, it’s a regrettable (and probably unavoidable) accident. If it’s something else…something sufficient to, say, ventilate the passenger/cargo area with a bunch of holes, that might be a sign the CV-22 is under-armored (And, if an AK-47 round penetrated the passenger/cargo area, we’ve got REAL problems). Again, as an OMFTS platform, the underlying understanding in development was that this platform would avoid flying into somebody’s crosshairs.

The other worry is that the CV-22 is bumping up against weight margins. It is no secret that the V-22–like every platform–got a bad case of developmental bloat, and that now, for every cool gadget that goes onto the airframe, something has to be taken off. If armor was taken off–or reduced–over the course of development, then, again, this may not be the right tool for an unaccompanied approach to an uncertain or contested LZ in a complex environment.

I would be interested to compare MH-53M protection with the CV-22.

Again, fire suppression and great ISR are the missing links–this airframe simply may require additional support to successfully operate in a contested environment.

Tactically, can we now get about recognizing that the V-22 departs faster than it lands? I’ve read a lot of stories with MV-22-selling Marines and other salesmen chortling about how they could zoom away from an LZ so fast nobody could draw a bead on them. Landing, however, is something else. MV-22s are loud, big and slow targets that are–thanks to prior accidents–locked into some high-safety margin approach profiles and high-requirement LZs.  Again, not a big problem if you’re following the OMFTS playbook or in a free-fire zone accompanied by lots of fire-suppressing friends.

But now that the platform is sold and the Pentagon locked in, if we are really, really serious about using this platform in uncertain and contested LZs, let’s get about fixing this.

Finally, how fast will the CV-22s recover after taking damage?  Outside the tactical concerns detailed above, my particular beefs with the V-22 concept is that the airframes lacked robustness and reliability.  Happily, the airframe is proving to be robust as hell–lots of folks are walking away from hard landings. The fact that the aircraft took hits and kept flying for over 500 miles is great–GREAT–news.  The Philippines demonstrates that forward reliability may be getting better too.

The next challenge will be to see how quickly the hit airframes are cleared to return to service–whether they can meet, in a cost-effective fashion–the more persnickety maintenance demands/requirements to continue to fly after taking combat damage. We shall see.

Conclusion:

I still think that the aircraft is just too expensive to operate as a multi-mission helo substitute, and I strongly suspect a REAL (i.e., a Glenn Defense Marine Asia-like “take it wherever it might go”) inquiry into the V-22 will reveal maintenance-record-keeping and numbers games. Call me a pessimist, but I believe that the tactics used to hide bloated maintenance budgets, minimize massive contractor support, obscure poor operational readiness rates and explain away the added cost of special equipment to accommodate the MV-22’s particular maintenance issues and operational challenges (How much do those well-deckless LHA’s cost these days, anyway? Oh, and how much will fire-suppression support escorts cost? etc, etc.?) would make Fat Leonard’s waterfront machinations look like the thrashings of an amateur profiteer.  But that’s water under the bridge, I suppose.

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.

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  • In regards to “But efforts to immediately shove the newly-arrived CV-22 right into the niche vacated by the highly specialized MH-53M Pave Low–a platform that developed and matured over the course of years and years of combat experience–that is a recipe for a real disaster. The CV-22 is a new platform and must be used differently.”

    The CV-22 is not a replacement for the MH-53 PAVE LOW helicopter, even though due to the common misspeaks of many, it was often believed that it was. The mission of the MH-53 PAVE LOW was officially tasked to the MH-47 (3/160th SOAR). The CV-22 is being utilized in it’s own way for it’s own missions, which may even resemble some of what the MH-53 PAVE LOW did. However, just as every platform has its limitations, so does the CV-22.

  • Rodney USMC

    Carl Forsling is right, making it sound as though armor was option for the V-22 is just not understanding rotor wing flight dynamics. Unless you were going to put a pair of P&W JT9D on each wing, armor was never given a second thought during design phase.

    I will grant you that understanding how to employ the platform will take some time, I never understood why the services thought this was going to be a helo “replacement”. It’s nothing of the sort, it augments helo platforms and unless they can reduce it’s footprint, it will never really replace the Chinooks or Jollys in a combat environment.

  • Carl Forsling

    NO assault-support helicopter has significant armor in the passenger area. You make it sound as if that is some kind of design flaw. The weight is prohibitive. You can armor the pilot seats, some critical flight controls, and parts of of the fuel system, and that’s the best you can get. It’s just pure material science–look at an LAV. It’s only rated to survive 7.62mm rounds, and it’s a damn armored car. Armoring a rotorcraft to that standard is physically impossible.

    The Osprey is well over 200 knots inbound to the LZ. That gives the enemy much less warning. On short final, V-22s get in about as fast as any medium-lift helo. It’s not a Little Bird or a Huey, but it gets in plenty fast, very much like a -53. It definitely gets out MUCH quicker than anything else on egress.

  • Craig Hooper

    But…I thought SEALs could shoot really, really accurately!

    Joking aside, those are good points, and they really hammer home the importance of having strong coordination with/by folks on the ground for NEO operations (something I suggest, but didn’t expressly emphasize as much as I should have). If a CV-22 really needs to have a sterile LZ, then the folks on the ground arranging things need to know that.

    Better ISR support would also have been useful.

    Guns provide an option to suppress fire when needed. There are creative ways to suppress fire while minimizing casualties. Distract the threats from the landing CV-22, awe them, lay down obscurants, develop a lower-lethal round or engagement protocols, whatever. It adds to the toolbox of options. (Of course, then we’d need to have a discussion about how much space those weapons (and crew) would take from the transport capabilities of the airframe and so forth–which lead me to suggest a dedicated mini gunship escort.)

    A slow, loud approach, with folks hanging out the open rear ramp….doesn’t work.

  • anon

    In a Noncombatant Evacuation Operation where civilians are likely intermixed with the shooters at the LZ, what good would better or more weapons on the Ospreys or any other plane or chopper have done?

    If they had an amazing weapon system, would they have opened it up in a crowd of civilians because 3-5 people were shooting at them? Same for a mini-gunship. In this kind of NEO operation the best outcome is to not shoot, not kill any civilians, and leave, even if they’re taking fire.

    Maybe the armor of the CV-22 could be looked at again, but in this case, I think any different or more weapons would have been irrelevant.

  • admin

    Oh, who cares about geography any more?? (grin) Seriously though, nice catch, and the oversight has been corrected.

  • If you are going to write an article about the Osprey, at least get the operational location of this story correct.

  • Randall Rapp

    One thing I’m worried about is with the failure of the EFV and foot dragging on the ACV, I’ve seen several reports that show MV-22s flying over the beaches and assaulting objectives (OMFTS style) without any amphibious landing at all for support. What happens the first time somebody misses a ZSU near the landing zone?

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