Osprey helicopter nears overseas deployment

The Marine Corps is expected to announce in early April the much-anticipated details of the V-22 Osprey's first overseas deployment, a move that will intensify the debate over whether the tilt-rotor aircraft with a tumultuous 25-year history is ready for battle.

Marine Corps officials have been mum on where they will deploy the Osprey, stating they could send it wherever Marines are deployed around the globe. But several lawmakers and defense analysts say they strongly suspect the Osprey will head to Iraq this summer or fall.

That would throw the Marine Corps' newest airframe into the heat of combat where insurgents are using increasingly sophisticated shoulder-fired weapons to shoot choppers out of the sky. But the Marine Corps argues that, after years of rigorous testing, the V-22 is ready for almost any combat scenario.

For Marine Corps officials, the Bell Helicopter-Boeing Co. contractor team and other supporters of the V-22 program, the Osprey is a transformational hybrid aircraft whose features -- including its speed and ability to fly at far higher altitudes than the aging CH-46 helicopters now used -- make it nearly impervious to a fatal ground attack.

"It's more survivable than anything we've got over there now," Col. Glenn Walters, Marine Corps director of aviation plans, programs and budgets, said in a recent interview.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers appear to support the impending deployment, stating that the time has come for the Osprey to prove itself in combat.

House Armed Services Seapower and Expeditionary Forces Subcommittee Chairman Gene Taylor, D-Miss., said he personally has some "reservations" about deploying the Osprey. But, he added: "This is one of the times ... when you trust military leaders who are solidly behind it."

And Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., whose district includes Boeing's V-22 plant, said there is no other way to assess whether the Osprey is ready for battle until it actually is used operationally.

"I think this is the right thing to do," said Sestak, a retired vice admiral. "The plane was built for combat."

But the program's detractors argue that the V-22, whose price tag for acquisition costs alone tops $78 million per aircraft, has unresolved safety issues that could make it a target in the sky. Others without a firm opinion of the program still question whether the Marines should send the operationally untested Osprey straight into the toughest combat situation in the world.

"It would not help the program to have a number of losses early on," said Christopher Bolkcom, an aircraft analyst at CRS. "The young Mike Tyson was a superb boxer but they didn't throw him in his first bout against the heavyweight champion."

The debate over the Osprey's deployment is the latest round in a fight that began when the program was conceived during the Reagan administration. Thanks to congressional supporters of the Marine Corps and the contracting team, the Osprey has survived several attempts to kill it, including repeated efforts from 1989-1992 by then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney to eliminate it from his annual budgets because of its high cost.

So far, Congress has poured more than $20 billion into the program, but its checkered history has been punctuated by four crashes, including one in Arizona in April 2000 that killed 19 Marines. The Osprey crashed again eight months later in North Carolina, killing four Marines.

Last month, the Marines briefly grounded the V-22s because of a computer chip problem.

Todd Bowers, a Marine Corps veteran who witnessed the Arizona crash, said he is skeptical about the V-22's impending deployment and is not convinced of the hybrid aircraft's survivability in combat.

"I think it would be smarter to have more rigorous testing and more thorough testing and more in-depth analysis of that testing," said Bowers, now a Marine Corps reservist and a defense investigator at the nonprofit watchdog group Project on Government Oversight.

Bowers is certainly not alone in his criticisms of the program. Earlier this year, the Center for Defense Information released a stinging report titled "V-22 Osprey: Wonder Weapon or Widow Maker?"

In particular, the report concluded that the Osprey's descent rate -- 800 feet per minute -- is too slow for a hot-fire zone. And moving faster than that, the author warned, would send the V-22 into a fatal dive.

Thomas Christie, the Pentagon's former director of operational test and evaluation, likewise noted that the slow descent rate and other problems with the aircraft could limit the V-22's use in a hostile environment. The Marine Corps, Christie said in an interview, has worked hard to correct problems, but is too "wedded" to the program.

"And so we're stuck with it, so we've got to make it work," Christie added.

The Marine Corps, however, disputes the CDI report's conclusions. Walters said the V-22 can land faster than 800 feet per minute, but service officials opted to put an audible warning on the aircraft when it exceeds that rate.

Other supporters say that the Osprey can land much faster than other helicopters, including the CH-46 helicopter it will replace.

Meanwhile, Ospreys and their pilots have been through extensive testing, including four months of training at Nellis Air Force Base in the Nevada desert -- possibly the closest environment in the United States to the one troops face in Iraq, said Walters.

And the V-22's survivability features -- including its low infrared signature, redundant onboard systems and speed -- will protect it from hits that would be fatal to other aircraft, he said.

Walters, however, stressed that modifications will continue to be made to the aircraft. "I am never, ever satisfied," he said. "I am always striving to improve."

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