House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., finally got his hearing on the performance of the Marine Corps' MV-22 Osprey on Tuesday, expressing his "strong reservations" about the hybrid tilt-rotor aircraft at the beginning and announcing at the end he would recommend that the House Appropriations Committee cut its funding.
The hearing in between those two statements was a tale of two airplanes. Two Government Accountability Office witnesses and a retired aviation expert joined committee Democrats in describing an over-priced failure with severe reliability problems and potential safety issues.
Meanwhile, the Marines' top aviation official and the commander of an Osprey squadron that operated in Iraq for six months portrayed the aircraft as an essential weapon system with unmatched capabilities.
Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Darrell Issa, R-Calif., tried to provide some balance, noting the high failure rate of many of the Osprey's components during its three combat deployments, but citing similar problems with other aircraft at similar stages of operations.
Towns had adjourned a scheduled hearing on the V-22 last month because the Pentagon had failed to provide requested records on the Osprey's performance in Iraq. Those records "raise even more serious questions about the V-22," he said.
But Towns relied mainly on data from a GAO report that said while the Osprey "successfully completed all its missions" in Iraq, it operated in a "low threat environment," and had aircraft availability rates far below requirements because key components were failing after one-third of their flight hours. Towns said each V-22 cost $120 million, three times the initial estimate.
Arthur Rivolo, an independent aviation analyst who has monitored the V-22 program for much of its 25 years of development, said it has failed to meet its promised performance and has severe safety issues that the Marines "have shown no interest in resolving" but will "come back to bite them" in a future combat situation.
Lt. Gen. George Trautman, deputy Marine Corps commandant for aviation, acknowledged the MV-22 -- the Marine Corps variant of the V-22 -- had availability problems during its three six-month Iraq deployment because no one had predicted the high failure rate of some components. But he said the Osprey's ability to take off and land like a helicopter, then fly with the speed, range and altitude of a turboprop aircraft "has transformed our way of fighting."
He predicted the availability problems would be corrected with more experience.
An even stronger defense was presented by Lt. Col. Karsten Heckl, who commanded the second MV-22 squadron in Iraq. After listening to the other witnesses and committee members say the Osprey could not operate in hot or cold weather and dare not fly in hostile conditions, Heckl said his squadron flew through days of 120-degree heat and flew every mission assigned, including combat raids.
But Towns concluded the hearing by announcing that "the list of things the Osprey can't do is longer than the list of things it can do."
He said he would send the committee's report to the appropriators so they "can put the taxpayers out of their misery" with the V-22. Towns later issued a news release that corrected his closing remark to say, "It's time to put the Osprey out of its misery."