Exclusive Feature – Going to Afghanistan:The Osprey Squadron Prepares


[slidepress gallery=’Osprey_Afghanistan’]

These photos are of the VMM-263 arriving in Afghanistan. All of the squadron’s Ospreys landed at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan. It is situated northwest of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province.

A Whole Different Animal”

In an interview just prior to the deployment of the Osprey squadron from North Carolina to Afghanistan, several members of the squadron talked with sldinfo.com about their upcoming deployment.[1] The Osprey team discussed their preparation, some of their expectations and some of their thinking about how the Osprey could be used to benefit the MAGTF and the joint and allied forces.

Above all, the core view was that the unique capabilities of this aircraft would provide some tools, which the MAGTF commander would be able to use in the context of the topography of Afghanistan and the demands of shifting strategy. The speed and range of the aircraft and its ability to support MAGTF team members widely dispersed in Afghanistan was often cited in the interview. Also, underscored was the ability of the Osprey to fly at a much greater height than traditional rotorcraft to which it is often compared, and to be able to use “vertical sanctuary” by operating at higher altitudes.

The Afghan deployment is the second for the Osprey. The Osprey has first been used in Iraq, and its “baptism” has been drawn upon for lessons learned in preparing for the new deployment. When asked whether the Marines had drawn such lessons, one squadron member commented: “Absolutely, we’re, you know, the Marine Corps. We pass it on.

Specifically, the Marines underscored that some members had previous Osprey experience in Iraq, many had Iraqi combat experience and some had Afghan combat experience. Also emphasized was the wide-range of backgrounds of members of the squadron in working air issues within the MAGTF. As the Squadron Commander commented: “We have guys from every background: Hornet, Harriers, Prowlers, CH-46s, CH-53s, you name it.

And the ability to learn from operating the Osprey in Iraq to improve maintenance performance was also underscored. The challenges of terrain and climate in both Iraq and Afghanistan are formidable and shape the maintenance challenge.

As one Marine commented with regard to maintenance: “You had mentioned maintenance before, and that’s my part of it; but, you know, as far as maintenance on the aircraft is concerned, I’ve seen lots of stuff out there about how hard it is and everything else. But, as we get better on this machine learning how to fly it and fix it, it’s really becoming second place on how to maintain it. And I have seen many gouge out there about how hard it is to maintain this aircraft. It’s really just that, it’s bad gouge. You know, as the Marines learn, it just gets easier. It’s still a new platform.

Another Marine added: “As far as the maintainability of the aircraft, the aircraft is not hard to work on. It’s not difficult. It is a complicated piece of engineering, but the parts are there when we need them. The issue right now is the maturing of the supply system. You know, so many things are still going into building the aircraft and fielding them, even when we go forward, and we are at the top of the food chain as far as support, support is not quite the same as it was in Dad’s old Buick. So that’s coming along. As it matures I think we’ll see a big turnaround in maintenance, and the cost of operating the aircraft will all start coming down because of that.

With regard to operations, the Marines discussed the challenge of getting folks to understand the impact of the new machine on operations. A common point is that “we are not a rotorcraft; we are operating a tiltrotor craft”. As such, we can do the operations of a CH-46 but we are not simply a CH-46. “Do not confuse our abilities to mimic the CH-46 with the much more limited capabilities of the CH-46 when compared to the Osprey.

As one Marine put it: “And you can call it a rotorcraft, it’s a form of rotorcraft, but it’s a tiltrotor; that’s the distinction that gives you the speed and the altitude that a normal rotorcraft doesn’t have.

Another Marine underscored that getting folks to understand the difference is essential to understanding how to use it differently from a rotorcraft.

It’s a whole different animal and we’re still ten years later struggling with what exactly does that mean? Let me give you a practical example in CONUS. When we land in the D.C. area, we kind of challenge the FAA controllers to understand how we operate. We kind of surprised the Washington Terminal area controllers because, you know, why can’t I get in the pattern with that guy up there? I’m moving at the same speed. Because then you have to take the runway. Well, no, I don’t need to take the runway, I can get off and fly helo route, too, if you want me to do that. And that just blew their minds, and we couldn’t find a way to really, you know, work that out. So it is not just us, the military, who are challenged to understand the unique characteristics of the Osprey; the FAA controllers are as well. We’re going to have to figure out this tiltrotor piece out because it is far more versatile and gives you a lot more options, and the rules aren’t really written for it.

And bringing the unique qualities of the Osprey to the fight are especially important in Afghanistan. This is true for several reasons.

  • First, the adversary has decades of experience of tracking and combating rotorcraft. The con-ops of the Osprey are different and can provide a counter to the years of experience of the adversary in countering rotorcraft.
  • Second, the combat operations in Afghanistan will be able to draw upon the unique capabilities of the Osprey.
  • Third, the ability of the Osprey to support ground forces which are not organically linked to the Osprey will become drawn upon as well in Afghan operations.

The ability to carry it all in one load and to skip a refueling will be especially important in Afghanistan. This means that the aircraft can move in areas not covered by traditional rotorcraft without using multiple Forward Operation Bases (FOBs), and moving in the directions of relatively direct flight which rotorcraft need to use. As one Marine commented on the critics of Osprey: “They simply do not take into account the operational advantages of the ability to skip a refueling or its ability to carry it all in one load.

Another Marine emphasized the joint impact of enhanced security for the force and increased ability to surprise the enemy. “If you’re flying a helicopter, you pretty much have to take a straight line in a lot of situations, but we could come from really any direction, which could have a big impact as well: that is what you called surprise factor.

The range of the aircraft means you can cover the entire theater. An example of how range came to folks attention was when VIPs came to Iraq and wanted to get around Iraq in a day.

MV22 Range

As one Marine underscored:

The minute they get there and everybody realizes that you can cap all six FOBS in less than six hours if you’ve got the speed and the legs to do it, the next thing you know, well then, you just became the platform of choice. Why? Because I have to get to every one of these places before the sun sets today. And no other machine can do that for you except the V-22.

The infrastructure piece is key to the Osprey advantage, given the lack of it in Afghanistan. The Osprey can operate from a single base, but its ability to operate all-over the AOR means that it can go where it is needed: it is not limited by its base location.

As one Marine put it:

We’re not married to the base and ground infrastructure the same way a traditional aircraft can be. You can’t do it in Afghanistan. You couldn’t… You wouldn’t be able to effectively maintain aircraft and maintain the maintenance or the operation of infrastructure for a relatively small air element in so many different locations and FOBs, you know, from the company level, in some cases down to platoon level. But if you put them all in one place with their ability to quickly dash out and get to that guy and do whatever he needs you to do, then return to that same central base, we’re in effect doing distributed operations.

A tempo-generating and combat multiplier asset

The ability of the Osprey to move rapidly to support dispersed forces is central to tempo-setting.

As one Marine noted:

The mission of support, which people often lose sight of, isn’t just to move things around the battlefield in a circulatory motion like we’ve seen become encapsulated in Iraq, it is the ability to provide mobility to the MAGTF Commander anywhere, anytime, anyplace, any payload; that’s the key. I can be wherever the enemy is, and I can be there faster than the enemy can respond to me. That’s tempo-generating. That’s basic maneuver warfare. I can move faster, farther, with more stuff than you can, and you can’t get away from me; and you can’t catch me.

The ability to quickly move ground forces from one area where they are not needed to reinforce in areas under attack will be essential in the Afghan theater. One Marine underscored the significance of the Osprey contribution to this con-ops capability.

I see the V-22 as a real combat multiplier with its ability to reinforce ground forces over great distances. So right now, in the traditional deal that we’re in where we have platoon-size elements spread over hundreds of miles, it’s likely to be very quiet in one area, and there be a tic in another area. And at the ground commander’s request, we could take troops from a regionally quiet area to an area where something’s going on, and that’s a real combat multiplier, the ability to do that with the speed the Osprey is capable of. That, I think, is the crux of it all: the ability to reinforce, cover great distances in very short periods of time, and then return those troops to their base, which might be 200 miles away, at the conclusion of an operation.

Another key aspect is the ability to fly higher and quicker as a means of providing enhanced security and greater capability to operate envelopment operations.

As one Marine encapsulated the Osprey advantage:

Obviously Afghanistan has terrain that we’re all familiar with over there: the altitude is what creates the difference, but this airplane’s got the highest altitude capability of any vertical lift aircraft. It’s the only vertical lift aircraft that has an oxygen system onboard. So our ability to fly more than 20,000 feet does a lot of things for us. Now obviously, we can’t carry passengers at our highest altitudes, we can certainly carry cargo. We can go to get passengers and we can carry passengers down at lower altitudes. But flying at higher altitudes makes you a whole lot faster.

And I see that really glossed over when this airplane is briefed. The average ground person, or someone who’s not a pilot, or even a rotary pilot, may not fully understand it. At higher altitudes, you’re about a hundred knots faster than you are on the surface, in any airplane, Tiltrotor or otherwise.

So the ability to go higher definitely makes you faster, too, you get vertical sanctuary when you do that, so the ability of the enemy to try to shoot you or channelize you through some terrain. So you may have a helicopter that fly at 13- or 14,000 feet, a very powerful lightly-loaded helicopter; but, he’s still going to have to fly through passes where there could be an obvious place for the enemy to establish some type of threat system. Our ability to fly at more than 20,000 feet empty, or 13,000 feet full of people, gives us the ability to fly in straight lines from Point A to Point B without having to go around mountain ranges in certain cases, and gives us vertical sanctuary and speed while doing so. That’s often not captured in discussions about the airplane.

One Marine really provided the best conclusion to this article and the interview:

With the range and speed of the Osprey, we can reach areas where we have had only two choices: drop a bomb or do nothing. We now have the capability of having casualty reductions in by putting a man on the ground who can actually knock on the door, flash the guy his ID card, and then determine whether that person is bad or not, as opposed to think “Okay, well, we think he’s bad, we’re pretty sure he’s bad; we took a look at all the data and then we’re going to pop a bomb on him.

So there are all sorts of tactical applications which we haven’t explored. Part of that, also, is getting the culture of the Marine Corps, the ground side, to open up to these new things and, you know, be accepting of our reliability that we’re going to be there for them when we need to be there. So all of these things kind of encompass, I think, one of our biggest challenges.

[1] The Osprey squadron came from VMM-261 headed by Lt Col Bianca (CO); the ships came from VMM-263 off of the USS Bataan. http://www.2maw.usmc.mil/MAG29/VMM261/default.asp


***Posted November 15th, 2009