The decision sends the Marine Corps' newest airframe into the middle of combat where insurgents have used increasingly sophisticated weapons to destroy seven of the service's helicopters. But a senior Marine Corps officer told reporters today the V-22 is seven times more survivable than the 40-year-old CH-46 helicopters the Osprey will replace in the theater of operations.
The Osprey has lower infrared and acoustic signatures than the CH-46, can absorb and survive hits that would be fatal to other aircraft and flies higher and faster than traditional helicopters, Lt. Gen. John Castellaw, deputy commandant for aviation, said during a Pentagon briefing. "If you've ever gone rabbit hunting, you know it's harder to shoot a rabbit that's running than the one that's sitting still," Castellaw said.
Marine Corps Commandant James Conway hailed the deployment announcement as a "truly historic day" for the Marine Corps. Conway added that the Osprey represents a "quantum leap" forward in aircraft technology.
Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., a retired vice admiral whose district includes Boeing's V-22 plant, likewise applauded the decision in an e-mailed statement Friday.
"There is always friction in war, and this platform was built to best survive such conflict after having gone through the best review process the Department of Defense has to determine readiness," said Sestak, who is now touring Iraq. "The V-22 Osprey was built to be used in combat operations and that is precisely what we should do."
But the decision to deploy the aircraft, which has survived accidents and repeated attempts to cancel its expensive research and development phase, is likely to draw sharp criticism from those unconvinced that the Osprey is ready for combat.
"The plans to deploy into combat are premature, at best," said Winslow Wheeler, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information, which issued a study earlier this year titled "V-22 Osprey: Wonder Weapon or Widow Maker?" The Marine Corps, he said, still has not resolved the aircraft's "fundamental design, reliability and fragility problems."
The plane's 25-year checkered history has been punctuated by four crashes, three of them deadly, especially an April 2000 incident in Arizona that killed 19 Marines. Earlier this year, the Marines briefly grounded the V-22 fleet because of a computer glitch problem.
Castellaw on Friday expressed confidence that the V-22's problems had been resolved. The service has had a "very deliberate process to ensure that operationally, logistically, the squadron and the aircraft are ready to deploy," he said.
Indeed, the deploying squadron has already tested the aircraft twice in desert conditions in the United States. Eventually, the Marine Corps plans to send additional V-22s to replace CH-46s assigned to the U.S. Pacific Command, but Castellaw would not provide details on that deployment.
Other future deployments could include Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa. "As soon as we get the other squadrons transitioned, we'll be putting them aboard ships where they will operate routinely, and we will deploy them to other locations," Castellaw said.