Bell/Boeing’s revolutionary V-22 Osprey has had very select prospects – until now.
For the past ten years, Bell/Boeing have searched out additional orders for its tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey aircraft beyond the United States Air Force (USAF) and United States Marine Corps. News from Breaking Defense this week suggests that Air National Guard units are interested in purchasing the type as a Search and Rescue (SAR) platform – specifically, Alaska, Texas, and Pennsylvania. As with past announcements about potential V-22 sales, it’s best to wait until a firm commitment is made, and there’s good cause for skepticism here. As journalist Richard Whittle points out, Texas and Pennsylvania have quite an interest in the V-22 program – the aircraft is manufactured in Philadelphia (Boeing) and Forth Worth (Bell), after all. Prospective sales to the Alaska Air National Guard present a good operational case for the Osprey as a SAR platform, however. As the biggest and most remote state in these United States, Alaska has mountainous terrain and bad weather which prohibits the effective use of many helicopters in a SAR role. In spite of its expense, the Osprey just might have a good business case in America’s Last Frontier.
More importantly for Bell/Boeing, selling the Osprey to an Air National Guard customer could help to ‘normalise’ a revolutionary aircraft. From its inception, the V-22 Osprey was intended to comprehensively change the way a military would routinely deploy or retrieve personnel, combining the best aspects of fixed- and rotary-wing transport. Instead, it became a very selective – and expensive – solution to specific airlift problems. Tilt-rotor technology inherent to the V-22 didn’t quite spawn an ecosystem of similarly-equipped aircraft in civilian and military use (The AW609 has met limited sales success; Bell’s V-280 Valor is an attempt by the manufacturer to built a tilt-rotor replacement for the UH-60 Blackhawk).
Rather than opt for the Osprey, most nations have opted to continue operating conventional fixed-wing Short Take Off and Landing (STOL) alternatives, or employ simpler rotary-wing aircraft (such as the CH-47 Chinook) that carry bigger payloads than an Osprey, albeit over shorter distances. Neither option combines the Osprey’s advantages of high-speed, long-range, and vertical take off. But at least they’re cheaper.
This means the Osprey’s customer-base has remained largely limited until last year, doing exceptional roles for those who could afford it. The USAF’s Special Operations Command uses them for Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR), whilst the United States Marine Corps – which arguably fought hardest to get the Osprey – primarily employs it as just a medium-veritcal lift platform, although even this is subject to change. The USMC and Bell/Boeing have trialled the Osprey has an air-to-air refuelling tanker, and recently announced its intent to use as an ISR/Strike platform. For an aircraft brought on to just replace the CH-46 Sea Knight, the Osprey is growing its capability significantly.
Two important developments in the past year however have seen the Osprey’s customer-base grow. The first was the United States Navy’s announcement that it was ordering 44 Ospreys to replace its C-2A Greyhound Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) aircraft. Introducing the Osprey to the COD role will reduce the range at which a Fleet can be resupplied, given the Osprey’s shorter range compared to the Greyhound. But it will increase the options for vertical replenishment of surface ships; not to mention, allow carriers themselves to land forces ashore, such as during humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.
Another sales success has been Japan’s announcement that it would purchase its first five of an anticipated 17 Ospreys. Japan’s purchase is ostensibly to support humanitarian and disaster relief capabilities along with supporting amphibious operations. The aircraft has proven itself in this capacity during disaster relief operations in the Philippines and Japan itself, where it can be rapidly deployed within the immediate region and can be used to deliver aid flexibly. On amphibious operations, the Osprey will likely see day-to-day use in conjunction with Japan’s helicopter destroyers and landing ships, alongside aircraft like the CH-47 Chinook. Its performance here might inform other potential foreign customers about whether they really need to supplement their existing rotary-wing aircraft to support amphibious operations. The Osprey will allow these ships to remain further offshore, or project forces deeper inland – the question is, do amphibious forces necessarily need this capability, and can they afford it?
Another avenue to future Osprey sales however might be in what has the Air National Guards of Alaska, Pennsylvania and Texas so interested – SAR and CSAR.
During airborne SAR and CSAR operations, timing is a critical factor for the responding force. Whomever is in need of rescue is often at risk to the elements or enemy forces. The Osprey is a natural fit here, given its speed and range advantages over a helicopter, and ability to operate independently of airfields to deliver a rescuing force. For CSAR operations, the USAF has equipped the CV-22 Osprey variant with a number of self-protection systems to allow it some measure of defence in a hostile environment. The limiting factor is the V-22’s rotor downwash, which prevents it from winching survivors from the water.That’s a pretty important requirement for conducting SAR and CSAR – think of all the times you’ve seen an emergency services helicopter winch people to safety.
Good CSAR is like insurance – you hope never to use it, but you need a good policy if the worst happens. In the case of most western Air Forces, that coverage comes courtesy of the USAF, which operates the most comprehensive CSAR capability in the world with a mixed fleet HC-130J Hercules, HH-60 Nighthawks, and CV-22 Ospreys. A few other Air Forces use modified EC725 Caracal or AW101 helicopters, which obviously don’t have the Ospreys performance; but are admittedly cheaper and can be more conventionally operated.
CSAR is a niche role, but one that has applications in conventional military and humanitarian operations when it’s not being applied directly. More militaries are envisaging a need for the role, rather than banking on the USAF as being their sole provider. The Australian 2016 Defence White Paper advised that the Army’s fleet of CH-47F Chinooks would be given an initial SAR and Aero-Medical Evacuation (AME) capability, and went on to raise the prospect of a long-range and high-speed being acquired under a AU$3 billion program. In Australia’s case, a CSAR capability would provide a useful contribution to Coalition air campaigns, akin to the RAAF’s deployment of Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft, along with the KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport. A CSAR potentially be employed on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, or even to evacuate citizens from a foreign country.
Introducing that capability comes at a price, especially given the Osprey is not the only CSAR platform on offer. But there’s some precedent for being optimistic about the aircraft. Boeing’s C-17A Globemaster III experienced a similar shift from an arguably niche strategic airlift capability to wider-spread export prosperity during its lifetime. In the late 1990s, it was largely unthinkable that anyone aside from the USAF would operate the C-17A, largely due to its operating costs and the availability of civilian cargo alternatives. Delays with the European Future Large Aircraft program (which became the A400M) led the Royal Air Force (RAF) to lease a fleet of four C-17As in 2001. The subsequent Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, coupled with the C-17A’s evolving utility and reliability, led the RAF to purchase the aircraft outright, and order four more. By the time C-17A production finished in 2015, it had attracted seven more export customers. That might not be the same runaway export success of an aircraft like the C-130 Hercules, but to its credit, the C-17A ‘normalised’ the idea of an air force possessing its own strategic airlift capability for future generations. Once governments had a taste, they couldn’t bear to think of not having that option open to them. The current combat operations in the Middle East, coupled with humanitarian missions undoubtedly to come, might do the same for the V-22 Osprey just yet.