Air Transportation: Paying For More Edge Than You Can Afford

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December 6, 2017: The 300 V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor transports used by the U.S. military have spent 400,000 hours in the air since the first ones entered service in 2007. This was considered quite an achievement because the V-22 turned out to be a very complex aircraft that was very expensive to operate and, worst of all, deemed indispensable by its users. It was reliable and affordable enough to keep in service but there is still a lot regrets over what else might have been done with all the time, effort and cash.

The marines are the primary user with 258 MV-22s in service and they are working on a number of upgrades that will result in a MV-22C model. This C version is designed to carry more weapons and operate more reliably and in just about any weather or visibility conditions that marines might encounter. Currently the MV-22C is largely a wish list and not expected to enter service until the 2030s. One reason for working on a C version is that some of the new technologies investigated can be adapted as upgrades for the current MV-22B. The marines also follow the upgrades SOCOM (Special Operations Command) gets for their more lavishly equipped CV-22s. The 44 SOCOM CV-22 differs from the MV-22 in having larger fuel capacity and terrain following radar for night missions as well as electronic defenses. The marines often get called on to carry on missions similar to what SOCOM does and this makes it easier to justify the higher operating expenses of V-22s compared to traditional helicopters. This essential edge is mainly about speed.

With the growing use of special operations forces there is more need to keep these small but vital missions supplied. This has had some interesting side effects. For example the V-22s not only have higher operating costs but also require more updates and modifications than conventional helicopters. Yet the V-22 has become too useful to drop, especially when it comes to supporting special operations forces or, as the marines point, similar marine missions. An example of that is the introduction of a palletized aerial refueling system that quickly enables the MV-22B to become an aerial refueling aircraft. This VARS (V-22 Aerial Refueling System) is useful in many situations for refueling transports, fighters (F-18 and F-34), larger UAVs and, increasingly, special operations helicopters. The refueling system won’t be in wide service until 2018. VARS works by taking advantage of the V-22 rear cargo door because that makes it easy to roll a pallet on or off. The VARS is mounted on cargo pallets and setting up (or removing) VARS in a V-22 takes a few hours.

Accessories like VARS makes it easier for the U.S. Department of Defense to justify plans buy 408 (or more) of the V-22s, most of them for the marines. A smaller number (51) of CV-22s are going to SOCOM and the last of these will be delivered in 2019. So far about 300 V-22s have been delivered, but the marines keep having second thoughts about buying more because of the escalating costs for maintaining them. Problems keep showing up that cost more money to deal with, especially when the V-22s are used under combat conditions in hot and dry (as in dusty) conditions.

There have been successful efforts to fix the problems as they arise. For example in 2012 the marines began receiving the new "Block C" version of the MV-22B. This one has better weather radar, improved cabin climate control, better anti-missile defenses, and flat screen displays in the cockpit and cabin that show what external cameras see from different positions on the exterior of the aircraft (improved situational awareness). All this is important for an aircraft that takes off and lands like a helicopter, then speeds away like a fixed wing aircraft. This speed has proved to be very useful in combat, as it is more than 120 kilometers an hour faster than the helicopters the V-22 replaces. Block C helped with brownout but did not eliminate all the brownout risk.

While users of the V-22 are happy with their unique hybrid, the accountants are less pleased. Since 2009, users have been struggling to increase V-22 readiness (ready for action) rate from 50-60 percent to the 82 percent that the manufacturer had originally promised. The problem is that, despite being a wonderful feat of engineering that is now proved itself capable of serving in a combat zone, the V-22 is mechanically very complex and expensive, as well as being difficult to keep operational. The V-22 has had lots of trouble with costs and reliability even though it has been flying since 1988.

Since the V-22 entered service the estimated lifetime cost of operating the aircraft has increased 64 percent to $121.5 billion. Although the major user (the marines) have had an excellent safety and reliability record, despite the brownout problem, the marines are also buying 200 CH-53K helicopters. These are slower (315 kilometers an hour) but carry more, are more reliable, and cheaper to operate. The 53K began as an upgrade program for existing CH-53Es but it quickly evolved into a new model and once the first one flew in late 2015 and demonstrated the ability to deliver the higher performance as well as traditional CH-53 reliability (and low operating costs). The CH-53K is faster and carries more farther than the E model. The 38 ton CH-53K can carry nearly 16 tons, or 55 troops. Cruising speed is 315 kilometers an hour and typical combat radius is 200 kilometers. Endurance is about two hours per sortie. For many missions the CH-53K can fill in for the MV-22. Production of the first 22 CH-53Ks begins in 2018 and will be completed by 2021.

The MV-22s used by the marines can carry 24 troops 700 kilometers (vertical take-off on a ship, level flight, landing, and return) at 390 kilometers an hour. The V-22 is mainly replacing the CH-46E helicopter, which can carry 12 troops 350 kilometers at a speed of 135 kilometers an hour. The V-22 can carry a 4.5 ton external sling load 135 kilometers, while the CH-46E can carry 1.4 tons only 90 kilometers. The marines are using the faster speed of the V-22s to reach the enemy in a more timely fashion, and run more flights, than a helicopter, in the same time. The V-22 also operates better at the higher altitudes encountered in Afghanistan but much of Afghanistan (and other areas popular with Islamic terrorists) is hot and dusty and that reduced V-22 reliability in increases maintenance costs. All this has made V-22s especially useful for SOCOM operations and the sort of jobs the marines see themselves getting in the near future.

 

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