April 2, 2010:
The U.S. Marine Corps is trying to persuade SOCOM (Special Operations Command) to buy a squadron or two of marine MV-22 tilt-rotor transports, to augment the more expensive SOCOM CV-22 version. Last year, SOCOM sent its first six CV-22 tilt-rotor ("Osprey") transports to serve for three months of field testing in Iraq. Meanwhile, the marines have had MV-22s in Iraq for two years, and now have them in Afghanistan as well.
The U.S. Air Force component of SOCOM is using the CV-22 to replace the current MH-53J special operations helicopters. Unlike the U.S. Marine Corps version, the SOCOM CV-22s 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 3500 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 SOCOM CV-22 won't ready for regular service for another year.
The marines believe their cheaper version (because they lack the all-weather flight electronics and other extras) will prove ideal for most SOCOM operations. The marines have already been using their MV-22s for commando type operations, and are very satisfied with the results. Both versions of the V-22 have also been armed.
SOCOM, like the marines, has had a GAU-2B machine-gun fitted to the bottom of a V-22. This is a remote control turret using a six-barrel 7.62mm machine-gun. It has a rate of fire of 3,000 rounds per minute (50 per second), and max range of 1,500 meters. The system weighs a few hundred pounds and includes 4,000 rounds of ammo. A member of the crew uses a video game like interface to operate the gun. This weapon is part of the Universal Turret System (UTS) for Helicopters.
The need to arm the V-22 has been debated for nearly a decade. The original proposal was for a UTS equipped with a 12.7mm machine-gun. That has a longer range (about 2,000 meters), but the 7.62mm GAU-2B could lay down more bullets more quickly. Experience in Iraq and Afghanistan indicated this would be a more useful defensive measure. The UTS is mounted on CV-22s as needed. The armed SOCOM V-22 provides an option that the other users can easily adopt. The machine-gun turret is mainly there for protection from local threats, not for turning the V-22 into an assault aircraft.
The V-22 is the first application of the tilt-rotor technology in active service. The air force is already working on improvements (to make the V-22 more reliable and easier to maintain), but these won't be installed for another few years. The V-22 gives the marines and SOCOM a lot more capability, but, as is often the case, this is a lot more expensive. The initial production models of the CV-22 cost over $60 million each. SOCOM insists on a high degree of reliability for its aircraft. Commando operations cannot tolerate too many mistakes without getting fatally derailed.