|The U.S. Marine Corps’ evolving use of the tiltrotor is recasting how Pentagon planners think about vertical lift and speed.
When the V-22 Osprey went into development back in 1982, U.S. Marine Corps leaders felt they needed the helicopter-airplane hybrid tiltrotor primarily to launch amphibious assaults from well over the horizon rather than within anti-ship missile range.
Critics contended the Marines were going gaga for an attribute they didn’t truly need and probably couldn’t afford—flight speed. But in the Bell Boeing V-22’s ninth year as the world’s first and so far only operational tiltrotor, the Marines are proving that speed – and the range that goes with it – offers some big payoffs in a military vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft. Others are taking note.
What the Marines are doing with the V-22 is “very impressive, and everybody is watching it,” said Bryan “Doug” Brown. Brown began his U.S. Army career in 1967 as an enlisted Green Beret, is a “plank holder” in the famed 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and retired in 2007 as the first helicopter pilot ever to become a four-star general. “They’re certainly seeing the value of speed,” Brown added of Army aviation leaders.
The Air Force Special Operations Command flies a variant of the Osprey, the CV-22B, and the Navy is to buy its own CMV-22B variant for Carrier Onboard Delivery logistics flights. But for the Marines, the V-22 has become a transformational technology only tiltrotor true believers envisioned at first.
Most military helicopters cruise in the 120- to 140-kt range and, with some exceptions, must land to refuel every couple hundred miles. Tilting its two 38-ft-diameter wingtip rotors upward, the V-22 can take off or land like a helicopter, then swivel those rotors forward to fly like an airplane, cruising as fast as 250 kt. With aerial refueling, it virtually has unlimited range.
Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, deputy commandant for aviation, said the troop and cargo transport Osprey’s speed and range have radically changed how the Marine Corps does business, “whether it’s operating from a sea base and the utility of a Marine Expeditionary Unit or how we operate ashore.”
A prime example is that the Corps no longer relies exclusively on standard three-vessel Amphibious Ready Groups carrying a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) — about 2,500 Marines traveling with their own sea-based air force — to respond when needed along the crescent of crisis from North Africa to Southwest Asia. The Corps still keeps three MEUs, each with a squadron of 12 Ospreys, traveling around the world at all times. But since the September 2012 attacks on U.S. diplomatic and CIA compounds in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, the Marines have created two land-based task forces. These units, smaller but similar to MEUs, to respond to crises in Africa, the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
Officially called the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force Crisis Response Africa and Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force Crisis Response Central Command, these units have used their Marine-variant MV-22B Ospreys and Lockheed Martin KC-130J refueling tankers to roam thousands of miles from their land bases and accomplish missions unimaginable without their tiltrotors and tankers.
|An MV-22 in Liberia assists in efforts to control the Ebola virus. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Africa
When President Obama pledged to help Liberia fight the Ebola virus outbreak in 2014, the Africa MAGTF (pronounced “MAG-taff”) dispatched four MV-22Bs, accompanied by two KC-130Js, to provide transport around the coastal West African nation for medical personnel and VIPs. At about 37,200 sq mi, Liberia’s land mass is slightly smaller than South Korea. It is slightly larger than the U.S. state of Indiana.
With the tankers refueling them in flight, the Ospreys flew 650 nm from their base at Moron, Spain, to the Canary Islands, then another 850 or so to Dakar, Senegal, in 9 hr on Oct. 7, 2014. They spent one night at Dakar, then flew another 635 nm to Liberia. In the next two months there, they completed more than 170 missions, having logged 240 hr in the air to carry more than 1,200 relief agency workers and government officials to places unreachable except on foot or by VTOL aircraft in the area’s rainy season, which begins around May and lasts through October.
Another example: since November 2014, the MAGTF for Central Command has kept MV-22Bs and KC-130Js ready to take off from Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base in Kuwait on 30-min notice to rescue any U.S. or allied air crewmembers who might go down while flying missions against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The Osprey crews sometimes fly orbits near the battle zone when major strikes are underway. But more often they wait hundreds of miles away in Kuwait. (The Marine Corps declined to confirm the location, citing “host nation sensibilities.” But media reports have named Al Jaber as the base.) They rely on the MV-22B’s speed to get them where they need to be in time if called. Helicopters would have to be based far closer to do such a mission.
|The Osprey’s speed and range has reduced the Marine Corps’ need for forward arming and refueling points and the risks of defending them. Photo by Cpl. Meghan Gonzales
The Osprey has changed the way the Marines operate in other significant ways as well. When thousands of U.S. troops were still in Iraq and Afghanistan, the advent of the V-22 eased the Corps’ need for many of the forward arming and refueling points (FARPs) required by the Boeing CH-46 helicopter that the Osprey replaced.
“With the CH-46, we needed refueling points every 100 miles or so,” said Davis. “We had to employ convoys to deliver gas and sustainment for the CH-46s and the Marines who refueled them for each FARP. The MV-22 had so much gas and flew at such high speeds that we found we needed one quarter of the FARPS we had traditionally employed.” In transit, the V-22 also flew higher than 10,000 ft, Davis added, above the threat of small arms and shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, a Sikorsky Aircraft UH-60 Black Hawk and Boeing CH-47 Chinook pilot who commanded two battalions of the 160th SOAR, led the 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009 and was one of the 101st’s senior leaders in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. Schloesser said there is a movement within his service for more speed in future rotorcraft that stems from similar experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“You had brigade combat teams responsible for huge areas — three or four provinces inside Afghanistan, for example,” said Schloesser. “But the problem is, with the current fleets we have of rotary-wing aircraft, both Black Hawks and Chinooks, you have to have FARPs.”
The FARPs have to be protected and supplied, but truck convoys are exposed to roadside bombs, insurgent attacks or, in Afghanistan, blocked by impassible roads or terrain. “The fuel has to be delivered, in many cases, by Chinook because it’s too insecure or it’s too difficult,” he said.
“More speed to get out to the operational area has become something that’s becoming more and more important to the Army and clearly was important to the Marine Corps early on, hence their solution of the V-22 years ago,” said Schloesser. “You can operate farther, you can operate with less on the ground, when you’re able to have the speed and the operational range.”
Brown said the most critical helicopter requirement for the Army always has been “the hover and landing phase of when you’re putting troops on the ground,” a point the Army’s current aviation chief, Maj. Gen. Michael Lundy, made to R&WI recently ( Feb. 2016, page 15). But like Schloesser, Brown sees increasing interest in rotorcraft speed within the Army, a trend he welcomes, he said, because speed offers many advantages.
“You can cover more distances with fewer aircraft. You can go faster to crisis sites. You put pilots at less risk because you’re moving faster,” said Brown. “I flew helicopters in Vietnam at 80 to 90 knots. I used to give speeches at the Army Aviation Association of America about the importance of speed on the battlefield because I flew Black Hawks in Desert Storm and we flew 120 and 130 knots. We’d made 30 knots in the 30 years that I’d been flying in combat. Speed was important, and too many people were taking it as a nice-to-have attribute.”
Until recently, Brown said, his view wasn’t widely shared. “For years that message did not resonate in the Army, and one of the reasons I don’t think it resonated was, it was very, very difficult to get increased speed in a helicopter,” he said.
|The Marines no longer relies exclusively on Amphibious Ready Groups to project force. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Spc. 2nd Class Mark R. Alvarez
Once regarded as too expensive for the payoff the Army could get by flying faster, given the technologies available at the time, speed is now increasingly seen as worth the price, said Schloesser. He cited the Army-led Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator program, or JMR-TD, under which two competing designs are being built as prototype medium-weight aircraft able to fly faster than 230 kt. Bell Helicopter, which manufactures the Osprey in a 50-50 partnership with Boeing, is building a smaller tiltrotor called the V-280 Valor with Lockheed Martin (Sikorsky’s new owner). The Valor is designed to cruise at 280 kt. Sikorsky and Boeing together are building a compound coaxial helicopter with a pusher propeller able to cruise as fast as 250 kt. They call it the SB>1 Defiant. (The designation means Sikorsky and Boeing are greater than one).
“There’s no doubt that any future aircraft that at least the Army’s going to buy … is going to be a faster aircraft than any the services fly today – however the services choose, whether it’s a pusher-prop coax aircraft like the Sikorsky model or whether it’s a tiltrotor like Bell’s,” said Schloesser. He has advised Bell on the V-280’s design, but said he was “agnostic” between the two JMR-TD candidates.
“There’s a cost-point curve where speed gets really expensive,” he said. “I truly do believe that the operational requirements over the last 12 to 15 years have caused us to change our mind about that whole cost point.”
V-22 Pilots Not ‘Fatal Factor’
A top U.S. defense official has rejected the argument that USMC pilots caused the April 8, 2000 crash that killed 19 and nearly scuttled the V-22.
“It is impossible to point to a single ‘fatal factor’ that caused” the Marana, Arizona crash, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said in a Feb. 11 letter to North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones. For 14 years, Jones championed the efforts of the widows of Lt. Col. John Brow and Maj. Brooks Gruber. The widows argued a July 2000 USMC press release dishonored their husbands.
That release said in part that the pilots’ drive to accomplish their mission “appears to have been the fatal factor.”
Work said he reviewed legal and safety investigations of the crash and the V-22 program review triggered by it.
He didn’t contradict any findings of those, he said, but noted the crash involved “an interrelated chain of events” that “made the accident – or one like it – probable, or perhaps inevitable.”
Links in that chain included the program’s poor understanding vortex ring state (VRS) and its unique hazards for the lateral-rotor Osprey, including the prospect of a violent, unpredictable rolloff to one side in VRS like the one that occurred in Marana.