Procurement: A Plague Of Poor Parts

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January 17, 2011: Turns out that the biggest threat to the V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft is shortages of spare parts, and poor quality of those you can get. This problem developed over the last three years, after the U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 got to Iraq and Afghanistan, and acquired valuable combat experience. This enabled the marines to find out what the V-22 did best. As expected, the higher speed and cruising altitude of the V-22 was very useful. Moving troops to where they are needed, or getting badly wounded marines to a hospital, were things the V-22 excelled at, moving at twice the speed of the helicopters previously used. Cruising at a higher altitude (10,000 feet or more) than helicopters, and moving faster, gave the enemy much less opportunity to get off a shot, much less score a hit.

The heavy use also revealed which parts were likely to wear out when, something you never really find out until you get the aircraft into a combat zone. But once the marines had a better idea of how many of which spare parts they would need, they began encountering suppliers who provided defective parts. The end result that, instead of being available 82 percent of the time, V-22s were only ready to go 57-68 percent of the time. Despite these quality problems, the marines and SOCOM (Special Operations Command) are satisfied with the performance (especially the speed and operating altitude) of the V-22.

The V-22 is a complex piece of work, and this resulted in a lot of development delays. At the moment, the U.S. Department of Defense has approved the purchase of 458 V-22 aircraft for the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Air Force (for units operating with SOCOM).  The marine MV-22s can carry 24 troops 700 kilometers (vertical take-off, level flight, landing, and return) at 400 kilometers an hour. The V-22 is replacing the CH-46E helicopter, which can carry 12 troops 350 kilometers at a speed of 200 kilometers an hour. The V-22 can carry a 10,000-pound external sling load 135 kilometers, while the CH-46E can carry 3,000 pounds only 90 kilometers.

The U.S. Air Force component of SOCOM will use the V-22 to replace the current MH-53J special operations helicopters. Unlike the U.S. Marine Corps version, the SOCOM CV-22 will have lots more expensive electronics on board. This will help the CV-22 when traveling into hostile territory. The CV-22 also carries a terrain avoidance radar, an additional 3,600 liters (900 gallons) of fuel and more gadgets in general. The 25 ton CV-22 is a major improvement on the MH-53J, with three times the range, and a higher cruising speed (at 410 kilometers an hour, twice that of the helicopter). The CV-22 can travel about nearly a thousand kilometers, in any weather, and land or pick up 18 fully equipped commandoes.

The V-22 is the first application of the tilt-rotor technology to do active service. The air force is already working on improvements (to make the V22 more reliable and easier to maintain), but these won't be installed for another few years. The V-22  give the marines and SOCOM a lot more capability, but, as it often the case, it is a lot more expensive. The initial production models of the SOCOM CV-22 cost close to $100 million each. SOCOM insists on a high degree of reliability for its aircraft. Commando operations cannot tolerate too many mistakes without getting fatally derailed.

The other services, and particularly SOCOM, have watched the marine experience with the V-22 in Iraq, with great interest. SOCOM was relieved to see that the V-22 stood up well to constant use in a combat environment. The only major surprise, other than the defective spare parts, was the engines wearing out faster than expected. This may be a design problem, not an "Iraq and the desert" problem, and the engine manufacturer, Rolls-Royce, worked out a fix. Over a hundred V-22s have been delivered so far.

 


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