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Jewish World Review Nov. 29, 2001 / 14 Kislev, 5762

Frank J. Gaffney, Jr.

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Send in the marines -- with the planes they need -- THE deployment of two Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) into Afghanistan adds dramatically to the ability of the United States to project power flexibly and lethally in the next phase of Operation Enduring Freedom. Unfortunately, the Leathernecks' challenging missions in that theater are being made -- unnecessarily -- more difficult and dangerous because they have to be performed without the benefit of a powerful force-multiplier: the V-22 "Osprey" tiltrotor aircraft.

Thanks to the tiltrotor's ability to rotate its propellers in flight, the Osprey can take off and land like a helicopter, yet convert once airborne to perform like a conventional turboprop aircraft. This enables it to fly to distances and at speeds far surpassing any traditional rotorcraft, opening up options for mission planners and commanders that may prove the difference between success and failure.

Other features of the V-22 make it an ideal weapon system for the present and subsequent phases of Operation Enduring Freedom. Thanks to its in-flight refueling capabilities, the Osprey can self-deploy. This means that it need not be taken apart and put into long-range airlifters in order to be brought rapidly to bear in distant theaters. Noise reduction features allow it to be practically on top of a target before the enemy is aware of its presence. And collective "battle-space awareness" and defensive system protection designed into the Osprey enable its crew and warrior payloads to engage the enemy across a broad range of threat environments.

There is only one problem: Safety considerations that make sense in peacetime have caused the V-22 development program, in the wake of several fatal accidents, to be placed on an extremely protracted, so-called "zero risk" schedule of software and hardware redesign, test flights and pilot training. As things stand now, none of the V-22s would be available to operational Marines units until the second half of 2003. What is more, all other things being equal, the tiltrotor aircraft being configured to meet the needs of Special Operations forces -- who are currently playing such an important role in the war on terrorism -- would not be available in quantity until even later.

Now, no one wants to breach sensible safety standards, or to put Marines or other service personnel at undue risk. But several considerations argue for doing what the U.S. armed forces -- and other successful militaries throughout history -- have always done in wartime: Make the fullest practicable use of technological innovations, evolutions and revolutions that can contribute to the decisive defeat the enemy.

One such consideration is the finding of the latest in a mind-bogglingly large number of blue-ribbon commissions, cost- and operational-effectiveness analyses and other studies conducted on the V-22. A panel of the Nation's foremost aeronautical experts, convened at the Marine Corps and Navy's request by NASA, has just strongly endorsed the V-22 program. Their "principal conclusion" was that "there are no known aeromechanics phenomena that would stop the safe and orderly development and deployment of the V-22."

The NASA group also expressed the view that, "When fielded the V-22 will truly revolutionize the role of transport aircraft in the defense of our country. This vehicle should be deployed at the earliest opportunity." One of the panelists even declared in a separate statement that, in his expert opinion, the magnitude of the technical challenges to fielding the Osprey was, if anything, being overstated by his colleagues.

Another important consideration is that there are real costs and safety issues associated with having the Marines continue to rely upon their existing, obsolescent CH-46 and CH-53 helicopters. The two MEUs' deployment to Kandahar demonstrates that the Corps has done an outstanding job keeping these aircraft going -- even though age, mechanical problems and reliability issues have degraded their performance. Still, as one Marine helicopter pilot familiar with the Osprey recently put it to me: "I would far rather get in the cockpit of a V-22 today than fly the CH-46 again."

The third and most important consideration is, of course, that we are at war. As a result, the second Bush Administration should do what the first Bush Administration did in 1990 under similar circumstances: Make use in combat of developmental weapon systems, even though their full capabilities had yet to be proven, where such systems had the potential to make a quantum improvement in the mission effectiveness and survivability of our men and women in uniform.

Thanks to this approach, the airborne Joint Surveillance and Tracking System (JSTARS) and Patriot anti-missile system were allowed to make invaluable contributions to Operation Desert Storm. The former enabled real-time monitoring and targeting of Saddam Hussein's forces on the ground; the latter provided the only protection to U.S. and allied forces and the latters' population centers against scores of Iraqi ballistic missile attacks.

To be sure, neither system worked perfectly in the Gulf War. They nonetheless saved American lives and contributed materially to the outcome. Thanks to the operational experience thus acquired, moreover, important improvements have been introduced into both systems and they are today fixtures in the U.S. military's arsenal. The lesson is that, if necessity is the mother of invention, adversity is the mother of utilization.

Accordingly, previously identified safety improvements to the V-22 (involving software changes now in hand, a rudimentary Vortex Ring State warning system and an interim rewiring of the propeller nacelle) should be made at once to at least twelve of the existing Ospreys. Check-out flights and pilot training should be completed as concurrently and as swiftly as possible. If given the necessary direction, resources and priority, this initial squadron could be made available to the Marine Corps for combat -- with acceptable risk and tremendous operational benefit -- within a matter of a few months.

Bringing the Osprey to bear in Operation Enduring Freedom would have one other, less tangible but still important benefit. It would demonstrate that the sort of "transformation" of the U.S. military that President Bush and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld have properly emphasized can, and frankly must, begin with the technologies like the V-22 that been have under development for years -- but not yet exploited. Once the capabilities of this particular system are proven in combat, the way will be clear for the sort of accelerated and expanded procurement of these tiltrotor aircraft that will in all likelihood revolutionize the way each of the armed services' perform their respective missions, and in turn transform commercial aviation as well.

As always, there will be those who argue against departing from the cautious, sclerotic and time-consuming bureaucratic path of least-resistance. Absent the present war on terrorism, we might be able to afford to follow such a business-as-usual approach. Today, however, we cannot. And we owe it to those now being sent into harm's way -- and the country for whom they go there -- to ensure that they have the most capable means of making and surviving such missions at the earliest possible time.

JWR contributor Frank J. Gaffney, Jr. heads the Center for Security Policy. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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© 2001, Frank J. Gaffney, Jr.