Infrequent Flyer

How the Marines spent thirty years and $30 billion on the V-22 Osprey, an aircraft that’s barely fit for combat.

By Mark Thompson

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The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey
by Richard Whittle
Simon and Schuster, 394 pp.

April 25, 1980, dawned bleak in Washington. Americans awakened to the news that Operation Eagle Claw, a mission to rescue fifty-three hostages held by Tehran and its newly ascendant mullahs, had failed disastrously, killing eight U.S. troops and seemingly confirming Jimmy Carter’s reputation as a bumbling commander in chief. But while Carter took responsibility for the fiasco in the Iranian desert, the mishap was as much technological as it was managerial. The original plan had been to free the hostages by clandestinely ferrying an elite Delta Force team to Tehran with helicopters launched from a remote staging ground in south-central Iran, dubbed Desert One. But the helicopters fell short of the task, and the mission was aborted when too many of them broke down. In their rush to return home, two aircraft collided and exploded in a fireball that killed eight of the ten servicemen on board. When news of the tragedy broke, I was a Washington correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and I managed to track down Texas Senator John Tower, a senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, in his hideaway office in the Capitol’s rotunda. "Never again!" a not-altogether-sober Tower pledged.

There was considerable fallout from Desert One: Cyrus Vance resigned as secretary of state, and Congress created the U.S. Special Operations Command, over the Pentagon’s opposition, to overcome the interservice rivalries that had contributed to the debacle. Another legacy was an effort to build a new kind of aircraft, one capable of landing and taking off almost anywhere, like a helicopter, but also able to fly long distances without refueling, like an airplane—a craft eventually called the V-22 Osprey. With its tilting rotors and engines, the V-22 would combine the best of both types of flight; most importantly, its ability to make lightning strikes deep inside enemy territory would ensure there would never be another Desert One.

In his new book, The Dream Machine, Richard Whittle, former Pentagon correspondent for the Dallas Morning News, tells the long, costly, and bloody tale of this hybrid bird, which has taken thirty years—as well as thirty lives and $30 billion, so far—to go from blueprints to battlefield. Whittle takes the reader from the aircraft’s birthplace in Fort Worth to its first combat deployment in Iraq in 2007, and puts us grippingly in the cockpits of the four V-22s that crashed during its development. It’s a great yarn for those in love with military gee-whiz technology and aviation in general. But it’s not such a happy read for taxpayers concerned with getting the biggest bang for the buck or ensuring that the nation is buying the right weapons for future wars. In fact, Whittle’s interest in the V-22 succumbs to the same trap that the Pentagon’s did, getting so caught up in the aeronautical wizardry that he never addresses the question that once led Dick Cheney to try to kill the program: Is it worth what it costs?

As Whittle makes clear, the V-22 technology is a wonder, and a testament to the nation’s engineering prowess. But just because something can be built doesn’t mean it should be. After all, the military has never lacked for zany ideas—nuclear-armed cannon, anyone?—that serve little actual purpose, let alone ones that would justify their exorbitant cost. The type of long-range helicopter missions that were the V-22’s raison d’être haven’t happened since Desert One. Much more common in actual combat are shorter hops, where the edge conferred by the V-22’s speed evaporates (think of flying the late Concorde as a New York–D.C. shuttle). The V-22’s theoretical speed and distance advantages have also proven modest, because of both the slower helicopter gunships needed to protect it and the slower heavy-duty cargo helicopters required to cart along the supplies the V-22’s troops would need for any sustained mission. Some observers suggest it would have made more sense for the Marines to save the V-22 for those few missions needing its speed and range, and buy cheaper conventional helicopters for everything else, but the Marines refused.

And the V-22, for all its technical advances, also came with an array of vexing design flaws. The craft’s military utility was compromised by its wide rotor spread, which kept it from landing in tight spots accessible to the choppers it replaced. The crew chief and passengers in the back of the V-22 could barely see out of it, which limited its landing options. The downdraft created by its rotors kicked up so much dust and debris that it could blind the pilots. And the engines’ exhaust was a blowtorch, giving V-22s a disconcerting tendency to start fires when operating near vegetation, and to buckle the steel decks of the ships meant to be their home base.

There was also the price tag. During his tenure as George H. W. Bush’s defense secretary, Dick Cheney was intrigued by the V-22’s technology but believed it was unaffordable, and repeatedly tried to kill the program. But lawmakers from the home states of the V-22’s key contractors, Bell Helicopter of Texas and Boeing Rotorcraft Systems of Pennsylvania, fought to keep it alive. To that end they enlisted the help of the Marines, and together they subverted Cheney and preserved the V-22.

B y 2007, the Marines were ready to take the V-22 into combat. Whittle followed the V-22 on its first deployment to Iraq, but doesn’t tell us much about its utility there—perhaps because there wasn’t much. Despite being sold as a "medium-lift assault aircraft," in Pentagon jargon, the V-22 was used as little more than a flying bus. It went to war without a forward-firing gun, and the Marines now say they have no intention of flying it into harm’s way. Reliability data (which Whittle barely mentions) stink, too: in Iraq, engines expected to last up to 600 hours had to be pulled and replaced after 400, and to date, only two of every three V-22s in the war zones have been able to fly on any given day.

While the recent deployment of ten V-22s to Afghanistan happened too late to be included in Whittle’s book, there’s little evidence the aircraft have done much better there. In fact, an Air Force V-22 crashed in southern Afghanistan in April, killing three servicemembers and a contractor. The aircraft have reportedly been used to set up "kill boxes" by flying behind Taliban forces and dropping off Marines who surprise the enemy—which makes sense if you’re willing to believe that the ground-bound Taliban are capable of outrunning conventional helicopters (the UH-60 Black Hawk flies 150 mph) but not the V-22, which can fly 50 percent faster. In the recent offensive to take Marja in Helmand Province, the U.S. military largely enveloped the town with troops flown in aboard trusty Marine CH-53s and Army CH-47s and UH-60s—conventional helicopters all.

And none of this has come cheap. At $120 million a copy, the V-22 costs more than twice its original estimate. And it’s enormously expensive to operate, although you won’t learn that from the book—a strange omission from a volume claiming to be the "authoritative" history of the V-22. You have to go online and download a recent government report to find out that the cost of flying a single V-22 for one hour is more than $11,000—more than twice its goal, and likely to increase. Nor does Whittle dwell on the V-22 program’s distressing undercurrent of inadequate testing, lousy engineering, and standards scrapped when they couldn’t be met—or the wisdom of putting fifteen Marines in the back of a V-22 that crashed in 2000, killing all on board, when fifteen sandbags would have sufficed.

Whittle tells much of the V-22 story through the eyes of Dick Spivey, an engaging Bell Helicopter marketer. It seems a pilot or an engineer would have made a better vehicle. But upon reflection, Spivey works. He’s Willy Loman calling on the Pentagon, "way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine."

It’s a tough sell, because the V-22’s dismal record hasn’t been lost on would-be buyers. The Army initially wanted 231 V-22s, but rescinded the order in 1988. (In one of the book’s more telling passages, an Army officer recalls the complex work that went into coming up with that 231 figure, which sounds so fastidious: "I plucked it out of the air," he told Whittle, because it sounded more "analytical" than a round number. Remember that the next time you hear a general extol the wisdom of the Pentagon’s current plan to spend more than $300 billion on exactly 2,443 F-35 fighters.) The Pentagon’s Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, hunting for a new rescue aircraft, found the V-22 unsuited for that demanding mission last year. It rated the aircraft last among several helicopters when it came to carrying out rescues above 2,000 feet—and Afghanistan’s average elevation is… 2,000 feet. The Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, its premier special-forces outfit, recently rejected the V-22, citing its poor hovering performance. International sales have been slack, too; for the past two decades various other nations have considered the V-22, but after kicking its tires have walked away without buying. Israel has opted for conventional choppers instead. The Japanese were intrigued by the concept and began building a tilt-wing in Texas, after luring several Bell executives to the project, but abandoned it after several years of development. Bell’s plan to build a smaller version of the V-22 for the commercial market is languishing as well.

Meanwhile, the Marines’ decision to stick with the Osprey has carried a huge opportunity cost. Because the craft sucks up a sizeable share of the Pentagon’s budget for rotary-wing craft, other more useful helicopters have gone unbought. That chopper shortage has hurt, especially in Afghanistan. Until recently, there weren’t enough U.S. helicopters in that country to ferry critically wounded troops to medical care in time to save their lives. "We had not had a double amputee survive those wounds in Afghanistan until this kind of additional air power came along," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last fall of the recent (non-V-22) chopper reinforcements. "Now they are being saved."

We could have saved a lot of money—and lives—if smarter leadership had demanded the Marines not bet the house on questionable technology. Unfortunately, they did. Here’s hoping that in the future, the V-22’s costs will be paid only in U.S. taxpayer dollars, and not in the blood of U.S. troops. The late Senator Tower said it best: "Never again."

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience.

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Mark Thompson, who writes about national security for Time magazine, has been covering the V-22 program for thirty years.

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