Though the Defense Department has yet to officially decide whether to buy the Marine Corps’ MV-22 Osprey in large quantities, the program has won the endorsement of DOD’s operational testing directorate.
When the department’s testing office issues its latest report on the aircraft in the near future, the office will endorse the findings of naval testers, who found the Osprey to be operationally suitable and effective for military use and recommended introducing the aircraft to the fleet, according to government sources familiar with DOD documents. The Pentagon’s plan to declare the MV-22 operationally suitable and effective marks a change from 2000, when Philip Coyle, then the head of the DOD operational testing directorate, found the Osprey “not operationally suitable,” primarily due to concerns about the aircraft’s reliability, maintainability, availability and interoperability. Bell Helicopter Textron and Boeing are developing the Osprey primarily for the Marine Corps. The aircraft has the capability to take off and land vertically like a helicopter, but also to rotate its nacelles in flight to fly like a plane.
The Pentagon is set to decide whether to buy the aircraft in large quantities at a Defense Acquisition Board meeting Sept. 27.
In June, the MV-22 finished its operational evaluation, which was successful, according to officials. Inside the Navy first reported the conclusions of the naval testers in July, before the information was officially released. The naval testers found some deficiencies that must be corrected. For instance, there are issues with certain radios, passenger seat restraints and electronic combat equipment. The DOD report, which is based on the same operational evaluation, is expected to have similar comments. A Pentagon spokeswoman declined to discuss the DOD report, but said it would be released soon.
In a separate but related development, DOD has certified to Congress that the Osprey has met certain criteria in operational tests, a key step in the process of preparing for a full-rate production decision. The Pentagon approved a certification letter to lawmakers last week, said a source tracking the issue.
After two fatal V-22 crashes in 2000, Congress decreed Osprey production would stay at a minimum sustaining rate -- which has since turned out to be 11 aircraft annually -- until the defense secretary certifies that successful operational testing proved the program had overcome previously identified problems involving hydraulics, flight control software, reliability and maintainability. Further, the defense secretary would have to certify that the Osprey would be operationally effective in various scenarios, including when accompanied on missions by other Ospreys or other types of aircraft. This is all spelled out in section 123 of the Fiscal Year 2002 Defense Authorization Act. Last year, driven by the desire to boost the Osprey’s production rate in the budget process as quickly as possible, the Navy sought to have the Pentagon issue such a certification before the operational evaluation had even started (ITN, Nov. 22, 2004, p1). But DOD opted to wait until after the testing was done.
Marine Corps generals have voiced strong support for the program. But there is still some debate about whether the Pentagon should limit its Osprey purchases or drop the program entirely. Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, criticized the program Aug. 18 when the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, held a day of discussions on the future of the Marine Corps.
The Air Force version of the aircraft, called the CV-22, is scheduled to undergo a separate operational testing phase late next year. -- Christopher J. Castelli