The recent campaign in Iraq, following right on the heels of Afghanistan, showed the world again just how important Special Operations capabilities are in 21st century combat. While some new systems were revealed to the public and others undoubtedly stayed in the shadows, other systems are still going through laborious testing processes. One system still in the test phase is the V-22 Osprey joint service, multi-mission aircraft.
Despite the disasters, setbacks and scandals the Osprey program has encountered,
the US Air Force has been having some luck with the CV-22, their Special Operations version of the Osprey. The CV-22 is being proposed to eventually replace the MH-53s and some MC-130s in the Air Force inventory. This included terrain following and avoidance radar, an electronic warfare suite, additional communications and navigation equipment, as well as additional fuel tanks in the Osprey's wings.
In addition to the obvious benefits of the V-22's vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) capability, the CV-22 should also be able to get into a trouble spot fast and get out while still under the cover of darkness. This can't be done (to the same extent) by the current helicopter fleet. Other CV-22 capabilities include air refueling, terrain following, formation flying, fast rope capabilities and water operations. The CV-22 will have a four-person crew, consisting of two pilots and two flight engineers.
All 50 CV-22s are scheduled to be in service by 2009. Initial operational capability is expected in September 2004, with a squadron of six aircraft stationed at Hurlburt Field, FL. The first four aircraft will go to the 58th Training Squadron at Kirtland where they will be used for CV-22 advanced aircrew training.
Like many 21st century systems, simulators will be massively critical to successful crew training. On April 21, a CV-22 simulator was purchased for $21 million for the Air Force Flight Training School at Hurlburt Field, Fort Walton Beach. There are currently two CV-22 simulators at Kirtland Air Force base in New Mexico and two more due in. The simulators cost one-fourth that of an actual CV-22 aircraft and are only 10 percent of the aircraft's per flying-hour costs.
Flight tests are also continuing, with two V-22s converted to CV-22 specifications at Kirtland. On April 4, the V-22 test teams successfully flew a CV-22 at 200 foot in a test of the aircraft's low-altitude terrain following radar.
When all is said and done, the Air Force wants an aircraft that can get itself to the trouble spot, do what it has to do under the cover of darkness and get out in one piece. During noncombatant evacuation operations in Liberia in 1996, the Air Force Special Operations Command learned of the value of self-deployability. Liberia was carried out with five MH-53Js, four MH-47s, three HC-130s, two MC-130s, and two C-130s supported by sixteen C-5 and C-17 sorties. According to AFSOC, the same operation could be accomplished much faster in the future using only five CV-22s, three HC-130s, and one C-17.
Most readers will remember fatal crashes and falsified maintenance records when they hear "Osprey", but the word from the majority of those who will be using this new family of transports is that "it's a great idea when it can be made to work, but take the time now to ensure the bugs have been worked out of it". One added benefit of the Osprey (whether it's the Marine's MV-22 or the CV-22) is that American forces will be the only operators of a working VTOL design - until the Chinese steal the plans. - Adam Geibel