Sunday, July 24, 2005

Some things need to die; TAB cola, UV sun lamps, Brita pitchers, paper airline tickets, PDAs, the NHL.

Recently Wired magazine ran a feature article on "Saving the Pentagon's Killer Chopper-Plane" (July 2005). It's a great article, well researched and balanced. But it did strike me as a bit of advocating technology for technology's sake, which of course is somewhat what Wired is all about That's okay. But while the V-22 may finally be poised after 22 years and $16B to actually perform more-or-less as designed, the time has also come to ask "is it time for the V-22 to die?"

Never give a SECNAV a blank check

The V-22's origins spring from the halcyon spending days of the Reagan administration. When Reagan won the Presidency in 1980, he and SECDEF Caspar Weinberger immediately began the largest peace-time military build-up in history. Suddenly EVERYTHING was affordable and needed. And every branch of the Armed Services rushed-in to get their toys on the wish list.

The Air Force immediately ordered 100 B-1's (which they are now desperately trying to unload) AND the ill-fated MX missile. Furthermore, they undertook developing both the B-2 and the F-22 stealth aircraft programs. (What a monetary black-hole these have been!). The Army immediately set out to field a stealthy helicopter, the ill-fated Comanche, as well as a significant force structure build up, more artillery, etc.

But it was the Navy, led by charismatic SECNAV John Lehman, that was by far the most accomplished at winning the DoD budget game. A 600-ship Navy became the rallying cry; necessitating additional carrier air wings, a new stealth attack aircraft (the ill-fated A-12), a new submarine class, a new destroyer class, upgrades to the aging but beloved A-6 (the "F" model), accelerated F/A-18 procurement, construction of new Naval Stations around the country (Lehman called it "strategic home porting"; opponents preferred "strategic home porking"), the F-14D Super god, the Christmas list was endless. And on that list was the V-22 Osprey.

Egos in the E-Ring

I point this out to indicate that the birth of the V-22 Osprey did not spring, as the Wired article implies, from the ill-fated Iranian Hostage Rescue operation in 1980 and a subsequent demonstration of the diminutive XV-15 in Paris. (Notice how often the phrase "ill-fated" turns up here?). was not the operational needs of the USMC that drove the V-22 procurement action, it was the simple DoD habit of grabbing as much of the cake as you can; and the more toys that are on your want list, the better your chances of getting a few of them for Christmas. If you can imagine it existing, then on the budget it goes!

So let's not try to justify a 22-year/$16B research program that has cost the lives of 30 brave servicemen with some unlikely-to-be-repeated-again hostage rescue mission from 25 years ago. No. The V-22 was just another of the many DoD "programs of excess" flooding the E-ring in the 1980s. And it has lived on because DoD and USMC decision makers have invested so much pride, so much ego, so much money...that even when it's clear that the cost of procurement and operation will far exceed any return in warfare capability.

New Helicopters Oui! V-22 Non!

Don't misread my intent. As a former Naval pilot, I have spent many hours riding in ancient CH-46 Sea Knights operated by the USN and USMC. God knows we need to replace this old, slow nightmare of a helicopter! And therein lies the tragedy of the very existence of the V-22 program today. Had wiser men intervened, the USMC/USN could have purchased hundreds of readily available helicopters for the price of the V-22 program to date (>$16 billion and counting), and we haven't even begun to actually buy the damn aircraft!... die...

So here's why it's time to ditch the V-22 and stop being enamored by the technology.

  1. No conceivable mission in today's world makes a resounding military case for this capability. The United States military has lived without the V-22 for 22 years, and we've fought countless battles. I doubt if any one of them would have ended differently had the V-22 been present. Better, newer helicopters yes...V-22 as decisive - no.
  2. Alternatives exist that are much cheaper and less risky: The US101 and the Sikorsky H-92, as well as advanced versions of the venerable Blackhawk would cost far less, have arrived sooner, cost less to operate, are lower risk, and could have dramatically improved USMC warfare capabilities in a fraction of time/cost. Not as sexy, I agree, but affordable and sustainable. I blame the DoD office of Program Analysis & Evaluation (PA&E) for not bringing these options to the table.
  3. The USMC cannot afford to buy or operate the V-22. The current Iraq war has taken a terrible toll on the readiness and core operational capabilities of the USMC. Those need to be repaired, and without having to compete for funds from a galactic Osprey program.
  4. In the end, the V-22 will be known mostly for one thing; it will do a great airshow.

Lick it up!

The V-22 program exists today for one simple reason; DoD cannot bring itself to kill a program after it has invested so much money. The Pentagon even has a cutesy name for this phenomena, it's called "the self-licking ice cream cone." Basic accounting rules such as "sunk costs" do not apply at DoD. Egos rule. As Wired magazine quoted Mike Lieberman, a military affairs aide on the HASC, "My God, we've thrown so much money at it, we have to get something out of it." And that is precisely why some things need to die...


Greybeard said...

No present mission for the V-22?

I won't address most of your statements because frankly, I don't know enough to speak on the subject intelligently.

But I will address one issue where I consider myself an expert:
The Bell/Boeing 609.

Were it not for the spinoff technology from the V-22, the 609 would not be on the verge of becoming a reality.

If and when they can produce enough of them to get the costs within reach, this aircraft will revolutionize the EMS industry. If seconds are important to save a life, this aircraft will reduce a 1 hour helicopter flight to less than half that.......and it will all be as a result of lessons learned in the gestation of the much larger V-22.

Experts can address the mission-necessity of the V-22, and I believe many would argue with your point of view.

But when the 609 begins to save lives, just as the civilian helicopter industry can thank the military for pointing the way, we'll be able to tip our hats to the V-22 for laying a solid foundation.

How many dollars is that worth?

Thanks for your forum!
(Retired Army Maj. helo pilot)

Roger Ball said...

Greybeard: Well said. I did not mean to overlook the medevac mission, where indeed seconds counts. No question. And the 609 tilt-rotor will certainly fill that role.

The question should be, I believe, whether the Bell/Boeing/Augusta 609 could have been developed faster (and cheaper) through direct use of research funds, rather than as a side effect of the multi-billion dollar V-22?

When tilt rotors arrive, I will be among the first to ride in them. I only question if we haven't wasted an enormous amount of time, money, energy, and life on the V-22.

Thank you for your comments.