Despite an increasingly important role in the U.S. fight against terrorists worldwide, the U.S. Marine Corps is struggling to make ends meet for current aviation operations and its future rotary-wing fleet.
The Deputy Marine Corps Commandant for Aviation, Lt. Gen. John Castellaw, summed up the challenges the service faces in meeting demands for air support. "We have lots of needs," he said, "but no money."
Some might bicker with the general, given the funds the Corps has plowed into the V-22 that again appears on the verge of entering service. But there is no doubt that the service's aviation assets are strained and stand little chance of near-term relief, given the tempo of U.S. combat and counter-terrorist operations. The lost of two CH-53Es in a February midair collision in the oft-overlooked theater of the Horn of Africa certainly didn't help.
The first Block B tilt-rotor aircraft were delivered to the Marine Corps in December. On March 2, the first operational unit, Marine Medium Tilt-Rotor Sqdn. 263 (VMM-263) stood up at MCAS New River, N.C., having succeeded the CH-46 unit Marine Medium Helicopter Sqdn. 263 (HMM-263) that was stood down for the transition. New River is also home to Marine Medium Tilt-Rotor Training Sqdn. 204 (VMMT-204) and Marine Tilt-Rotor Test and Evaluation Sqdn. 22 (VMX-22), which performed the most recent operational evaluation of the V-22.
Twelve V-22s are to be assigned to VMM-263, which Castellaw said will be deployed to combat within a year.
The Naval Air Systems Command is working toward a goal of achieving initial operating capability for the Bell/Boeing aircraft in September 2007. (IOC for the Air Force variant is scheduled to occur in Fiscal 2009). The V-22 will continue follow-on testing and evaluation at NAS Patuxent River, Md. and at New River.
The program is expected to release a request for proposal soon for multi-year procurement covering five years. The V-22 Joint Program Office expects to receive proposals by August. Award of the contract is expected in the first quarter of 2007 for long-lead and economic-order-quantity investments in support of procurement of Lots 12 through 16.
Program officials also expect to receive proposals for Lot 11 aircraft this summer. That contract is anticipated to be awarded in January 2009. Those aircraft are expected to be delivered to the service in 2009. In Fiscal 2007, the Marine Corps is requesting $916 million (fly-away cost) for 14 Lot 11 aircraft, not including spares, and $200 million in advanced procurement to support the multi-year procurement.
The V-22 program is working through testing of an AC-powered electric Goodrich hoist as well as a fast-rope attachment for the Block B variant.
Block A aircraft, which were used for OpEval, are continuing through testing. They will be used to train future V-22 crews. In its Fiscal 2007 budget, the Navy is requesting $268 million for advanced research, development, test and evaluation for Block A Ospreys.
Boeing and Bell Helicopter plan to ramp up production from the previous limit of 11 V-22s a year to upwards of 48 a year by 2012.
The Marine Corps plans to eventually take delivery of 360 MV-22. The Air Force Special Operations Command will get 50 CV-22s and the Navy 48 HV-22s.
On Jan. 2, the Naval Air System Command signed an initial systems development and demonstration contract with Sikorsky, covering continuing risk-reduction efforts and sub-system selection (including avionics, engines and fuselage) for the CH-53K. The moved followed the December 2005 approval of the $4.4-billion development program by the defense undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, Kenneth Krieg.
Formerly known as the Heavy-Lift Replacement and the CH-53X, this aircraft is the Marine Corps' replacement for its aging CH-53Es. Navy officials expects to sign the main, $2.9 billion systems development and demonstration contract with Sikorsky shortly. That contract would clear the way for aircraft development, systems integration, test-article production and test and evaluation activities will occur.
In its Fiscal 2007 budget, the Navy is requesting $362 million for advanced research, development, test and evaluation of the CH-53X. The Marine Corps is expected to eventually buy 156 CH-53Ks. The CH-53K is designed to carry 27,000 lb. of cargo up to an altitude of 3,000 ft at 110 kt.
Initial flight tests are expected to begin in 2010-11, with initial operating capability targeted for 2014-15. IOC is defined as a detachment of four aircraft with combat-ready crews.
But that IOC target is 2-3 years to late for the Marines, who face the forced retirement of CH-53Es starting in 2011-12 because of a 6,120-flight-hour, fatigue-life limit on the transition bulkhead section (at the tailboom's fold point). The service has a requirement for 156 CH-53Es. Fewer than 150 remain in the fleet because of aging and combat losses, and the Marines project they will lose about a dozen a year starting in 2011. So the Naval Air Systems Command and Sikorsky are working to develop a plan within a year for modifications to keep those aircraft flying. Marine officials project that should cost another $4.2 billion.
Both the AH-1Z and the UH-1Y have completed developmental flight test phases. One AH-1Z and three UH-1Ys are at the Naval Air Warfare Center at China Lake, Calif. undergoing operational test and evaluation now. That followed delivery to the Marines in October of the first AH-1Z attack and UH-1Y utility helicopters. The aircraft were transferred to the Operational Test Unit at Pax River for OpEval training
The Navy's Fiscal 2007 budget is seeking $446 million for a total of 18 H-1 aircraft. Under the program, Bell is remanufacturing 180 AH-1W SuperCobras to the Zulu configuration. Bell also is remanufacturing UH-1s to the Yankee configuration, although Marine plans call for it to transition to building all-new UH-1Ys. Bell was reported last month to absorbing significant cost overruns on the fixed-price H-1 contract, which Bell officials attributed in part to the challenges of standardizing the remanufacturing of aircraft of varying ages, where and configurations.
Under the H-1 program, the Marine Corps will get 180 AH-1Zs and 100 UH-1Ys that should remain in service beyond 2020. The upgrade program increases the speed, range, maneuverability and lift capability of both aircraft.
The service expects to begin taking delivery of the newly built UH-1Y light utility helicopters in 2008.
The Navy is requesting $7.4 million in Fiscal 2007 for the H-1 modification program.