January 23, 2012:
While users of the new American V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft are happy with their unique hybrid, the accountants are less pleased. It was recently revealed that the V-22 readiness (ready for action) rate was only 53 percent, versus 82 percent that the manufacturer had promised. The problem is that, despite being a wonderful feat of engineering that is now capable of serving in a combat zone, the V-22 is very mechanically complex and very expensive and difficult to keep operational. This is only the latest problem the V-22 has had with costs and reliability.
Last year, it was revealed that the lifetime cost of operating the V-22 had increased 64 percent over the last three years (to $121.5 billion). Although the major user (the U.S. Marine Corps) MV-22s have flown over 100,000 hours in Afghanistan and have an excellent safety and reliability record they are very expensive (over $116 million each). With major cuts in the defense budget coming there is pressure to cease production of the MV-22 and put more money into cheaper helicopters. The marines want to spend $8 billion to buy another 122 MV-22s. Coming budget cuts could make that impossible, and the only fallback position is some cheaper helicopters.
There is still a lot of enthusiasm for the CH-53K. Three years ago, the marines decided to replace their elderly CH-53Ds with CH-53Ks, rather than the more expensive MV-22s. The CH-53K was to cost about a third as much as an MV-22. Replacing the CH-53Ds means more CH-53Ks, for a total of about 200. It's expected that the final costs of the CH-53K may be higher but still less than half the cost of an MV-22.
While the MV-22 is a superior helicopter transport (greater speed and range) in a combat zone, helicopters are a lot cheaper. The coming budget cuts will probably see the marines cutting MV-22 purchases and falling back on conventional helicopters like the CH-53K to maintain their battlefield mobility. It's another case of good-enough beating out better.