Marines’ V-22 Osprey returns from first combat deployment

Tilt-rotor aircraft successfully used in more than 2,500 missions.

The Marine Corps on Friday touted the success of the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft that recently returned from its first combat deployment to Iraq. A squadron of Ospreys successfully flew more than 2,500 missions during six months in support of Marines based in western Iraq's Anbar province.

The Marines initially feared that the Ospreys in Iraq would be tucked away and not used because of the aircraft's high profile, said Lt. Col. Paul Rock, who commanded the Osprey squadron in Iraq. But it turned out they were used in a wide range of missions across western Iraq, including raids, air assault missions, medevac operations and as scout aircraft.

The majority of Osprey missions were as a cargo aircraft, ferrying troops and supplies. That's the most common role of the CH-46 Sea Knight medium-lift helicopter, which the V-22 is replacing.

Lt. Gen. George Trautman, the Marines' deputy commandant for aviation, was effusive in his praise of the aircraft's performance in a meeting with reporters, saying it exceeded all expectations for reliability and performance. The Osprey required nine and a half hours of maintenance per flight hour, versus 24 hours for the CH-46, according to statistics provided by the Marines.

The flying conditions in Iraq's desert were surprisingly less harsh than those encountered during operational testing in the deserts of Arizona, Rock said. The squadron did not have to replace rotor blades or other parts as often as they had expected, although the region's fine dust and intense heat meant the aircraft's engines had to be replaced frequently. The Ospreys that have returned from Iraq are being stripped down and thoroughly examined for wear and tear on all parts of the aircraft, he said.

There were concerns about the Osprey's vulnerability to groundfire in Iraq, since insurgents there have shot down a number of U.S. helicopters. But no Osprey was damaged by groundfire. Rock said that since the Osprey flies much faster than the CH-46 and has maneuverability similar to a fixed-wing aircraft, its vulnerability to groundfire can't really be compared to that of conventional helicopters.

While the Osprey takes off and lands like a helicopter, it typically cruises at high speeds at around 9,000 feet. Helicopters fly much closer to the ground. Iraqi insurgents did shoot at Ospreys with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, but pilots never considered the groundfire a serious threat, Rock said.

The Osprey had a problem-plagued development phase, including four crashes that killed 30 people. Some analysts said the aircraft's combat deployment was premature, and that the Marine Corps had not solved all of the aircraft's reliability issues. For example, in a 2007 report, the Center for Defense Information said, "It is an aircraft waiting to increase its casualty list single-handedly if it is ever permitted to go to a combat theater."

Most of the critics are simply wrong, Trautman said, while acknowledging that it's too early to draw full conclusions about the V-22's performance. "This was a test, but it's not the final exam," he said. "We're on a journey to exploit a new and revolutionary technology."

Another Osprey squadron of 12 aircraft is currently flying in Iraq. Trautman said there are no plans to deploy the Osprey to Afghanistan, where 3,500 Marines are currently fighting in the southern parts of the country. But he said he is convinced the aircraft would perform better there than the CH-46 helicopters the Marines are using.

The Osprey was designed to rapidly fly Marines from ships based far off an enemy's shore and deposit them directly inland, bypassing defended beachheads. Critics have said that using it as a cargo hauler is a poor use of such a costly aircraft. Cargo operations, they argue, could be better preformed by larger fixed-wing aircraft such as the Air Force's C-130 transport plane. The Marines have struggled to justify the Osprey program's $18 billion cost for use as a cargo plane.

The Marines have taken delivery of 50 Ospreys and plan to buy them at a rate of 30 aircraft per year. The Air Force wants 50 Ospreys for its special operations troops, and the Navy wants 48 for search-and-rescue operations.