Sunday, July 22, 2012

The V-22 Osprey: Innovative, Expensive, and Dangerous

The airplane enabled people or cargo to be moved quickly and without dependence on roads.  The major downside from a military standpoint is the necessity of a runway to take off and land airplanes.  With the creation of the first practical helicopter, the FW 61 in 1937, militaries had an option that could take off and land at remote outposts with minimal landing area required.

Nothing in life is really free, and the helicopter's vertical take off and landing (VTOL) ability was offset by disadvantages.  Traditional airplanes work by forcing air across a wing, which creates lift.  Helicopters work by moving the "wing" itself, which then creates lift.  Less energy is required for an airplane to produce forward momentum to create lift than for a helicopter to spin its wings.  The helicopter cannot travel as far, fly as fast, or usually carry as much as an airplane of similar size.

The V-22 Osprey is an attempt to combine the speed and range of the airplane with the VTOL ability of a helicopter.  The Osprey has stubby airplane-like wings ending in huge rotor/propellors.  The project was begun in 1983, and the first entered service in 1999.  Along the way, costs skyrocketed, and the Marine Corps was left as the sole customer.

The Osprey in plane mode is about twice as fast as a helicopter, and does have much greater range.  What the Osprey does NOT have is sufficient armament.  Current V-22s only carry a rear-facing M240 7.62mm machine gun.  Plans to add a swiveling multi-barrel .50 machine gun to the nose of the aircraft have been tabled for the moment due to the additional cost and weight of the system.The Osprey also does not have auto-rotation.

Traditional military helicopters have the option of autorotating if they suffer a power loss in flight.  The unpowered rotors can provide enough lift to allow a controlled crash instead of the aircraft just falling from the sky.  The V-22, airplane-like, can glide down if flying in airplane mode, but pilots on V-22s are not allowed to even attempt autorotation except in simulators.  This is a serious concern for a purported combat assault aircraft which will invariably be flying in helicopter mode every time it enters or exits a small combat outpost.

The lack of sufficient defensive armament and the critical lacking autorotating ability would be damning enough without the incredible costs over-runs which have led to everyone but the Marines backing out of the project.  What remains is a very expensive aircraft that seems to perform well when operating in the current environment without significant enemy anti-aircraft threats.

The CH-53 currently in US inventory is not as fast, but actually carries  more, is well armed, and can come in fast compared to the V-22, which has a very slow allowable rate of descent.  The V-22 seems more like an exploration of abilities than a mature war-fighting machine, and it is disturbing that Marine leaders have been willing to pursue their VTOL goals at the cost of an authentic weapons system.