The V-22 and Expanding the Operational Space


2013-01-17 by Robbin Laird

As Canada considers its search and rescue options, the V-22 is an obvious candidate to be in the mix.

The range and speed of the V-22 and the commitment of the US to supporting the evolution of the aircraft and distinct possibilities for increased acquisition numbers all make it a player.

As Canada looks at its defense capability enhancements for the decades ahead, it is crucial to consider value propositions.  The off-the shelf price of a system is not the determinant of its value or the cost impact of that platform on the missions envisaged.

The V-22 has demonstrated operationally a number of cost-avoidance impacts on USMC operations.  Notably, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the plane can cover the entire operational battlespace.  As such, costly and dangerous forward operating bases have been obviated.  The V-22 has been able to operate from single operational bases to facilitate support and maintenance.  Yet the plane can cover the entire operational territory.

It is a plane, not a rotorcraft.  It is a tilt-rotor airplane and as such has confounded commentators as to what exactly is this animal and what are its impacts on operations.

Fortunately for Canada, extensive use of the Osprey by both the USAF and the USMC has answered many of the questions about its utility, operational impact and durability.

And with the evolution of Arctic missions clearly expanding, a capacity to operate with greater range and speed is an obvious necessity.

Getting the Terms Right

A difficulty with any complex multi-mission system is that it take time to get it right in the development, production and manufacturing process.  And in the internet age, postings and articles at various phases of that evolution become google finds forever.

The problem is that context is lost, and operational experience negated.  Many examples abound from the A380, to the 787 to the A400M to the V-22 to the F-35.  These systems are significant enhancements over what came before but all of them are “troubled programs” which simply means that evolution takes time, but transformation takes longer.

The Osprey is no longer a “troubled program” but an operational reality which is transforming Air Force and Marine Corps operations.  The demonstrated use of the Osprey in Iraq, Afghanistan, in Operation Odyssey Dawn, and worldwide at this point is transforming the way the USMC operates and with it the USN-USMC team.

It has gone from a “troubled program” to a “transformational one,” but only the operators seem to have noticed.

The Osprey at 5

The Osprey has completed its first five operational years with the USMC.  I have interviewed over those five years operators, maintainers and squadron commanders of many Osprey squadrons.  During this time, the plane has gone through various phases of deployment evolution and with that evolution, the Marines have worked with the contractors to evolve the support capabilities for the plane.

In September 2007, the Osprey was deployed for the first time to Iraq.  The USMC Commandant Conway and Deputy Commandant of Aviation Castellaw announced and made the decision to deploy the Osprey into combat although virtually all public commentators thought this was too early for an “untested” airplane, as one critic put it.

The plane has not only done well, but in 5 short years has demonstrated its capability to have not only a significant impact on combat but t0 re-shape thinking about concepts of operations.

A Marine with Marine Aircraft Group 40 shields himself, Nov. 6, from the dirt and rocks blown around from the first wave of MV-22B ‘Osprey’ entering the Taskforce Helmand area of operation. Credit: 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, 11/6/09 

The story of the evolution of the con-ops surrounding the plane provides a solid foundation for innovation and transformation of concepts of operations for the USN-USMC team, if boldness overcomes timidity.

The plane started in Iraq built around a famous diagram showing the speed and range of the aircraft in covering Iraq.  As one Marine commented: “The MV-22 in the AO was like turning the size of the state of Texas into the size of Rhode Island.”

It was the only “helicopter” that could completely cover Iraqi territory.  And in this role, the testing of support as well as operational capabilities was somewhat limited as Marines tested out capabilities and dealt with operational challenges.  The plane was largely used for passenger and cargo transport in support operations in difficult terrain and operating conditions.

And its impact was immediate.  As Major General Walsh, now Deputy Commander of the USMC Combat Command, but then the air boss of Marine Air in Iraq recently commented:

With the CH-46s in Iraq, I had to put out Forward Arming and Refueling Points (FARPs) to support them.  This meant sending convoys, equipment, and Marines out to operate and secure the FARPs.  This also required protecting the FARPs after they were in place.

With the Osprey, I could simply leap past all of that. The Osprey completely changed how we operated. The demand became to use the Ospreys throughout Iraq because it could go through Iraq in one day easily, and just run around the battle space.  It changed completely how we used our heliborne assets.

It was used for assault operations from the beginning but over time, the role would expand as the support structure matured, readiness rates grew and airplane availability become increasingly robust.

From the beginning the aircraft impressed and foreshadowed later developments.  With the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq there was a roll up of forward operating bases. This meant that the remaining forces had to cover more ground and to provide protection at greater distance. Enter the Osprey, which did not require FOBs to provide lift and support to forward deployed forces.

Next on the agenda was the beginning of deployments to Afghanistan, which of course continue.

The Afghan phase of deployments has seen the aircraft and its operator’s transition to more assault combat operations over time, to the point where the latest Osprey squadron just came back from Afghanistan with record setting assault operations for the Osprey.

A metric to measure the transition can be seen in the number of named operations the Osprey squadron participated in in Afghanistan.  Over time, the Osprey squadrons have significantly increased their involvement in what the military calls Named Operations, and these operations are air assault operations in support of U.S. and coalition forces. The latest squadron VMM-365 (the Blue Knights) conducted nearly 200 named operations, which was a 20-fold increase over the squadron, which preceded it in Afghanistan.

But it took a while for the concepts of operations to change and commanders to understand fully that they did not have to operate in a fairly constricted operational box of a couple of hundred miles for the ARG-MEU and could think about a 1,000 plus operational area.

Cpl. Jeb Sayer walks atop an MV-22B Osprey while performing general maintenance in Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 264’s hangar at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, June 16. Sayer is a flightline mechanic with VMM-264 based out of Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C. Credit: 2nd MAW Forward, 6/16/11 

Enter Libya and linking the Osprey to the USN-USMC Gator navy opened up a whole new capability.  The ability to link seamlessly support services ashore with the deployed fleet via the Osprey allowed the Harriers aboard the USS Kearsarge to increase their sortie rates dramatically.  By providing a whole new speed and range enablement of the strike fleet aboard a large deck amphibious ship, the future was being re-defined by the Osprey.

And now fast forward to Bold Alligator 2012, the largest amphibious exercise held since 1996.   A major difference from 1996 to 2012 was the appearance of the Osprey.  Indeed, the existence, deployment and appearance of the Osprey changed the entire approach to thinking about amphibious assault.

While observers stood on the beach waiting for the assault, Ospreys were already part of taking an “enemy” fort deep in the terrain.  And not only that but one of the Ospreys deployed from a supply ship!

The Marines built up over this 5-year period a significant and growing number of member of the “Osprey Nation” and these folks then generated further capacity to learn and change.

For Canada, this “Osprey Nation” is a key resource and asset if it would go down the Osprey route as part of its solution set to Search and Rescue.

The US Army which does not operate Ospreys has often asked the Marines to operate MEDEVAC missions for them in Afghanistan.

As Lt. Col. Christian Harshberger, Commanding Officer of VMM 365, the Blue Knights, commented about the US Army and the Osprey in Afghanistan:

They became very interested in working with us on Medevac missions.

They would pop their equipment modules into the Osprey and have us fly to where the injured soldier was operated throughout the AOR.  There were a couple of times we got to the action so quickly that the Army was bringing the wounded up to the Forward Operating Base and we were arriving.  What would take a helo 35 minutes to do we could do in 13.

Moving Forward

The Osprey impact has only begun.  As one of the most celebrated of Osprey commanders has argued, the Osprey is part of a “tsunami of change.”  Lt. Col. Boniface led and witnessed the impact of the Osprey on US operations in Odyssey Dawn and led the Ospreys in Bold Alligator 2012.

From his perspective, the dynamics of change are simply beginning.

There is a tsunami of change coming when we talk about the ability to fight an enemy and to support Marines ashore.

We can increase our area of operations (AOR) exponentially because we can spread out our ships; now we have an aviation connector that can move Marines a tremendous amount of distance and in a very short amount of time.  We can also use this capability to leverage our other aviation assets like our AV8-Bs, CH-53’s, AH-1Ws and UH-1Ys to support the MAGTF and ultimately damage the enemy’s will to fight.  Let’s not just move 50-100 miles ashore, but let’s move 200-500 miles ashore, and do it at an increased speed, range and lethality.

There is change not just for the USMC but other US services as well.  The impact of putting F-35Bs and Ospreys aboard the new USS America class ship will transform that new large deck amphibious ship into a significant strike asset.  And with the retirement of the USS Enterprise provides a new “aircraft carrier” capability for the USN-USMC team.  The Osprey is clearly a key enabler of this evolution.

The USN itself is clearly considering a major buy of Ospreys for its large deck carriers.  The Osprey can replace the C-2 Greyhounds and provide combat capability in place of lettuce transporters.  And the Osprey can be modified to become an air-refueling asset.  Currently, the USN is hampered by using F-18s to refuel F-18s, which certainly limits carrier operations.  With the Osprey as an air refueler, whole new possibilities are opened up for USN aviation as well.

Enveloping the enemy or seeking an unfair advantage. Ospreys landing on the USS Iwo Jima during the BA-12 exercise. Credit: USN 

To date, the Osprey has limited connectivity and C2 functionalities.  This clearly will change as the Marines bring on the F-35B and rethink connectivity in the battlespace.  And clearly the USN and USMC will invest in evolving C2 capabilities for the fleet, another development from which Canada might benefit.

As Lt. Col. Boniface has commented about this possible evolution:

Clearly, the number 1 change next up for the Osprey is to get significant upgrades in capability to work with other assets.  We have an excellent mission computer but it is largely designed to operate the plane and is not designed to link either as a fleet or with the force.  We need to modify the mission computer to be network enabled.

This will be especially important as the F-35 Bravo joins the fleet.  We will have a significant C5ISR asset and we need to ensure that it has seamless connectivity with the Osprey.

The USAF Special Operations forces (AFSOC) using the Osprey have already invested in various specialized elements aboard the Osprey which can facilitate its expanded operational envelope.

The USAF describes its CV-22s as follows:

The CV-22 can perform missions that normally would require both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft. The CV-22 takes off vertically and, once airborne, the nacelles (engine and prop-rotor group) on each wing can rotate into a forward position.

The CV-22 is equipped with integrated threat countermeasures, terrain-following radar, forward-looking infrared sensor and other advanced avionics systems that allow it to operate at low altitude in adverse weather conditions and medium- to high-threat environments.

And over time, the USAF is likely to expand the mission sets of the Ospreys, notably in conjunction with other deployment packages.  Recent dynamics in Benghazi and Gaza underscore the need for insertable and tailorable force packages, and for the USAF, their Ospreys could well be in the mix.

The US may need a ready “global strike force” able to insert within a very short period of time to go up against the kind of enemy, which the West faces, on a very regular basis, and in so doing the Osprey contribution would be highlighted.

The focus on global strike has largely focused on a peer competitor; but the lessons of the last decade highlight the need for insertion forces which can do some of what was done in Iraq and Afghanistan without rolling out half of the deployable US military.

The recent Israel test of an offense defense enterprise against the Hamas and Iranian power projection included several elements: defensive anti-missile systems, strike systems against missiles and tunnels, and targeting of Hamas leadership.

The Israel version of insertable strike was demonstrated in Gaza as a key element of the package.

Perhaps the USAF and related elements can craft such a relevant capability organizationally.

The Ospreys and fighters bundled into an insertable strike package could prove a useful asset, but only if it is organized for and used.   UAVs rest on long periods of preparation for target determination.  Rapid reaction is just that and needs appropriate tools with man in the cockpit.

This is more Special Forces or USMC like, but the recrafting of USAF air capabilities into small tailored strike packages able to strike from anywhere in the world on short notice might well be a core capability to deal with a range of threats to be met in the period ahead.

Rather than baptizing the term “global strike” with ICBMs, why not focus on tailorable Osprey/fighter/tanker packages?

In short, the Osprey is not going away any time soon.

And its growing impact on US military operations, across the board, will go up.

This role will command resources, which will make the Osprey a very viable program for a long period to come.

For Canada, this means that there is a core community of a wide range of Osprey users in the United States, which can be leveraged.  What would have looked like a gamble 10 years ago is now a sure bet for performance and evolution of capability based on a transformational program.

For Major General Owens assessment of a recent USMC Pacific exercise and the impact of the Osprey on changing operational capabilities and de facto strategies see the following:

This article has been published in Frontline Defense.

In introducing the article Frontline Defence provided operational context for the Canadian case:

Northern Rescue 

Today’s reality: 

1) Send a fast plane (Herc) up north (3-8 hours) to the accident site.

2) Send a helicopter (Griffon) to the accident site.

3) Parachute two Search and Rescue Technicians from Herc to treat victims.

4) Wait approx 12 more hours until the rescue helicopter reaches the site from Cold Lake.

5) Pick up victims and SAR Techs, return to safety. 

The Griffon was not called into action on the initial alert because the private helicopter was the intended rescuer. The CF Griffon took 15 hours to get there after it was called into action. 

Is there a faster option that requires less resources? You bet. 

In contrast with the Herc/Griffon operation of January 9th, there would be a much quicker option if Canada had some V-22 Ospreys. 

Because it is a plane, a V-22 based in Winnipeg would have reached that scene in less than 3 hours (as the Herc did), however, instead of parachuting SAR Techs and waiting for a slow-traveling helicopter, the V-22 could have immediately picked up the rescuees and taken them to safety in Arviat. 

All done in less than 4 hours. 

1) No need to crew and fuel two different platforms

2) No need to drop stuff to the rescuees

3) No need for SAR techs to jump on ice flow or frigid waters

4) No need for five people (3 rescuees and 2 SAR Techs) to wait long hours in extremely harsh conditions for the rescue asset to arrive. 

What are we waiting for?

For a PDF version of the article download here <<