Making a Good Aircraft Even Better: Osprey Modernization


By Jo Ann Y. Williams, Ed.D.

Attending SOF Week 2024 in Tampa recently made me reflect on the V-22 Osprey program’s past triumphs and challenges, as well as its future.

Over a decade ago, I was part of a team that helped train Osprey pilots. Many of today’s Osprey squadron commanders are those pilots. With V-22 production winding down and much discussion involving modernization, it’s now time to start thinking hard about what comes next for the Osprey.

“There’s a ton of life left in this platform, and there’s a ton of mission left in this platform,” said Marine Col. Brian Taylor, the V-22 program manager. He recently outlined his thoughts publicly on a long-term plan for modernizing the V-22.

For the sake of the safety, availability and affordability of the Osprey going forward, congressional leaders and senior officials in the Pentagon should give considerable thought to his words, which were revealing.

An Operationally Relevant Configuration: More Bang for the Buck

I’m told when you buy any aircraft over a multi-decade period, you end up with different configurations. In the case of the Osprey, what looks like the same aircraft at first glance may be quite different when you look under the hood.

A variety of configurations presents a host of challenges for aircraft maintenance, for supply chain management, and for the introduction of new capabilities.

To address this, Col. Taylor reported that the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy are “coalescing on a kind of standard configuration, which is huge.” Huge, indeed!

However, while the services strive for what they consider to be a standard configuration, it’s more important for them to strive towards an “operationally relevant” configuration management plan.

Col. Taylor used a helpful metaphor in thinking about this. “If you think about the car that you bought 25 years ago and the car that you bought today, they are very different. They have different systems, and so [we’re] trying to kind of normalize all the systems and everything on an aircraft.”

A prime example is the Osprey’s mission computer system. Col. Taylor explained that because there are two variants of the Osprey’s mission computers, two different software builds are required. That’s expensive, complex, and time-consuming. Shifting to a single baseline would save taxpayers money and provide more capability, more rapidly, and that improves the experience for V-22 pilots as well.

Col. Taylor noted that “not having the software dependent on hardware” provides “a lot more flexibility in the fleet for mission kitting and things like that.”

Homing in on Nacelle Improvement

Because of the unique confined aerial landing, hovering, and other capabilities, nacelles are a critically important part of the V-22; they include the engines and tilt with the rotors. Sixty percent of the maintenance work on Ospreys is focused on these nacelles.

A nacelle improvement program is in the works that will simplify the nacelle structure. Improving on the decades-old design of wires and junction boxes, the nacelle improvement program uses point-to-point wiring and re-engineers hundreds of parts, lowering costs and saving time.

By focusing on the area of the aircraft that is most prone to reliability and readiness concerns, the nacelle improvement program will both save taxpayers money and make a more ready force.

Air Force Special Operations Command will be the first to put its CV-22s through the nacelle improvement program. The Navy and Marine Corps should carefully study the Air Force metrics used to measure program success and, if the gains are significant, embark on a similar upgrade program.

Modernized Displays and an Open System Architecture

Then there’s the need for a cockpit refresh. Col. Taylor used a helpful metaphor – an older-model car. When you drive a new car off the lot, typically the dash has touchscreens; it interfaces with your mobile devices. A car that’s 20 years old has none of that. And, everyone knows it’s more expensive to replace 20-year-old parts!

“These are a bunch of screens and displays and keyboards and stuff that were developed, back in the late 80s, so keeping them on the aircraft is pretty challenging,” he said. “We are kind of at a tipping point where we are spending enough on just maintaining what we have that it’s time to do something different.”

The answer from the Joint Program Office is a program called the V-22 Cockpit Technology Replacement, or VeCToR. Col. Taylor noted that commercial, off-the-shelf technologies will be a big part of the solution.

The Open System Architecture (OSA) should be a priority, as it can evolve and adapt as future threats emerge.

Leveraging work on the Army’s FLRAA program would provide the Navy and Marine Corps the ability to address legacy system constraints such as computer processing and display interface, while providing a significant cost savings and risk reduction and providing a path to interoperability with the US Army, other services, and foreign militaries who adopt FLRAA variants.

A Longer-Term Aircraft Modernization Approach

Longer-term, the Osprey program is working on its Renewed V-22 Aircraft Modernization Program, or ReVAMP. While in the early stages, Col. Taylor said the approach is, “if we had to do V-22 all over again, what would that look like?”

Maintenance issues and limits to the longevity of the V-22 really focus on things like gearboxes, engines, and wings.

The Joint Program Office study is looking at an improved drive system, new engines or new cores for the existing engines, improved ice protection, and modernization to the aircraft’s maintenance process, said Col. Taylor.

Tiltrotor’s Future

As Col. Taylor said, the mission sets the V-22 are getting into are absolutely unlimited.”

The Army has obviously taken note of that fact, as they have selected a tiltrotor from Bell for the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft. The V-280 Valor FLRAA technical demonstrator was built upon 50 years of lessons learned from the V-22, and the new FLRAA tiltrotor capability will transform how the Army fights.

Not only will other services see the benefit of advanced tiltrotor technology, but this will surely be something America’s strategic partners can benefit from as well.

Meantime, there are hundreds of V-22 Ospreys in service with the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy, with lots of life left in them. Each of the services, as well as Congress, must ensure they prioritize the readiness and modernization upgrades required to achieve the aircraft availability and affordability goals to meet the challenges of the next several decades.

Bottom line, we owe our warfighters the support it takes to ensure the Osprey, the first operationally viable tiltrotor aircraft, remains a versatile, game-changing platform for decades to come.

Dr. Jo Ann Williams is CEO/Owner of Iron Mine Strategies, a training and education consulting firm. She advocates for and provides researched-based knowledge, critical thinking, and analysis for decision-makers. She is a former Instructional Systems Design Analyst for the V-22 program. 

Featured Photo: U.S. Air Force Airmen assigned to the 20th Special Operations Squadron familiarize themselves with the new nacelle improvement modifications on a CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., Jan. 7, 2022. The improvements should increase aircraft availability and reduce required maintenance actions, leading to increased flying hours. The versatility of the CV-22 offers increased speed and range over other rotary-wing aircraft, which enables the 20 SOS to conduct long-range infiltration, exfiltration and personnel recovery missions deep into enemy territory. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Drew Cyburt)

On the Osprey nacelle improvement program and its initial imapcts, see the following:

Crafting and Shaping the Nacelle Improvement Program for the Osprey: The Role of Industry

Osprey Major Redesign Effort: Modified CV-22s Arrive at Cannon Air Force Base

Also see the following with the imapct of the Osprey on pacific operations: