The Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey has had its share of controversy over the years, at first it was whether it even worked in the first place, let alone how well it worked when deployed in live operations in theater and while at sea, but its price tag is something that has been far less scrutinized. Through the years, you will find a bevy of Marine officers, Bell-Boeing spokespeople, not to mention (and not surprisingly given final assembly is in Amarillo,) even my senior Senator from The Great State of Texas, who have all promoted their support for the positive attributes of the V-22 Osprey. However, what you will not find is ANYONE who can argue that the entire financial outlay of the program has been anything but prudent and foresighted.
According to recent public figures, it's more than interesting to note that the V-22 costs the USAF more money per flight hour to operate than a thirty-plus-year-old, four-afterburning-engined, variable geometry winged, long-ranged, nuclear-capable, B-1B Lancer bomber.
|Source: Business Insider March 2016|
Sure, the numbers above are from the USAF CV-22, but you don't have to have an aeronautical engineering degree from Embry-Riddle to discern that the differences between the two models, especially in terms of operating costs, can only be negligible. The Marines have said as recent as 2014 that they believe they have the operating costs down to $9,500 per hour, and another source I found cites around $11,000/hour (War is Boring: Jack McCain,) but there is history within the program to massage the numbers and there is no way that I buy that the V-22 costs anywhere near what an H-60 series helicopter costs to operate per flight hour given the synergies of costs that come with 4,000+ H-60 series aircraft built to date. However, to focus solely on it's operating costs would be to lose sight of the forest for the trees; the operating costs are just a small percentage (1.7%) of the overall fiscal sorrow that is the Osprey.
Actual maintenance figures for Marine Ospreys are not widely published, and I am sure there was and still is a reason for that - they are not pretty. Early into the MV-22's introduction into the Fleet Marine Force, the Rolls-Royce engines were not lasting on the wings but a fraction of the time that they were promised. Jack McCain (above) cites that the $1.5m prop-boxes were only lasting about 15% of their expected lifespan. And the Osprey's are still not as seaworthy as their predecessors Sea Knight helicopters that they replaced, let alone the MH-60S Sierra Hawks, (limited by the amount of time spent in helicopter mode by the over-heating of the prop-boxes and a rotor-wash downforce on par with a CH-53.)
The V-22 Osprey cost more to purchase than an F/A-18 Super Hornet and is roughly FIVE times as expensive to operate per flight hour than an MH-60S helicopter.
|RAAF F/A-18F's over Iraq|
Keep in mind, the reliability and readiness rates that are acknowledged are only even marginally sustainable because buckets and buckets of money are thrown at them. And this is all while the aircraft are still in production, spare parts are all readily available, and the age of the Osprey fleet is still relatively new.
Remember, instead of vesting R&D into tilt-rotor technology, (shouldn't the USAF or maybe even NASA be the ones developing all new envelopes of flight?) the Marines could have replaced their aged CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters with MH-60S helicopters, just like the Navy did to replace their CH-46D's. The below chart shows the "ballpark" savings in dollars to the tune of over $30 billion dollars and that doesn't include the TEN years minimum earlier that the Sierra Hawk helicopters could have been deployed to the warfighters on the tip of the spear in Iraq and Afghanistan. This number is also only "to date," and doesn't include the total operating costs over the lifespan of the program which remains to be soon. As maintenance and operating costs rise with the age of the aircraft, this number will only go up.
|Source: AeroWeb: V-22-Osprey|
This time last year, a handful of articles came out citing that the Marine Corps aviation fleet is in peril, and cited budget cuts contributing to a reduction in flight training hours and older aircraft being forced to carry on without replacement aircraft or spare parts. This is lamentable considering the decisions to stubbornly persist on going forward with the V-22 were all made voluntarily by those that be, in steadfast denial of the total operating costs. Military brass, politicians, and the military-industrial complex who feed them.
What could the Marines have done with that $30.6 Billion in savings? The Marine Corps Air Wing could have offset a lot of other dire Air Wing needs with that money. A new build AH-64E Apache for the US Army went for about $35.5m in FY14 dollars, compared to about $30m for what became a new-build, AH-1Z. The Marines wanted around 189 AH-1Z attack helicopters, and with those numbers, 189 new-build AH-64E's would have cost around $6.7 billion. The RDT&E for the H-1 upgrade program alone was about $1.5 billion AeroWeb: AH-1Z, and that figure alone could have bought about 42 AH-64E Apache attack helicopters right there, (the US Army already paid for the RDT&E.)
Have you ever watched Shark Week on the Discovery Channel and noticed those smaller "fish" attached on the back of sharks with their mouths? They are called suckerfish, or remoras. They are essentially parasites along for the free ride. This is what the UH-1Y was to the AH-1Z and H-1 upgrade program.
The UH-1Y is still not quite as capable, useful, (or even seaworthy) as an MH-60S, but then again that wasn't exactly the goal of the H-1 upgrade program. When the program was originally sold to Congress, they said they were going to be just an "upgrade" to existing aircraft so they would save money, only to later be completely abandoned for all new-build aircraft once they got into it and realized that would just not be feasible. Neither of the resultant upgraded "skids" (as they are affectionately referred to in the Marine Air Wing,) are any better than the otherwise readily available alternatives Sierra Hawk and Echo Apache helicopters.
The Marines certainly didn't want an MH-60S operating aside V-22's in this role because it would have readily highlighted the V-22 deficiencies and gross fiscal exorbitance. Unfortunately, the UH-1Y costs about $3.5 million more per copy ($25.5m FY14 vs. $22m) than a readily available (*and superior) MH-60S Sierra Hawk. The Huey is iconic and a stalwart in the rotary-winged hall of fame, but the Yankee upgrade was just not necessary when you had an MH-60S as an option. I look at the H-1 upgrade as sort of a "economic stimulus" for Bell. Had the V-22 been cancelled and the H-1 upgrade never happened, it would not be hard to imagine that they would more than likely no longer be in the business. Bell had help from friends in the right places when it came to the V-22 and H-1 upgrade program.
|US Navy MH-60S|
|MH-60S common cockpit|
That probably won't help the price on the rest of the F-35C's, but the USN is ready to move on to F/A-XX anyways. There should be no way a CATOBAR variant should cost more than a STOVL platform, and there is no way the USAF and USN should ever have let their requirements be compromised by the USMC's STOVL variant. If you would have told the USAF that their replacement for the F-16 was going to be predicated off of the replacement for the Marines AV-8B, they would have laughed and said you were aerodynamically challenged.
In response to President Trump's interest in the Super Hornet and in particular, it's cost savings, current SECDEF and former Marine General Jim Mattis has recently asked for a new analysis comparing the F-35C to the Super Hornet (Link). Considering the price tags of each, ($65.5m vs $121.8m w/ engine in LRIP 10), buying 67 Super Hornets instead of F-35C's would save around $3.8 billion dollars.
I'm sure the F-35C has some tech that the Super Hornet does not, but with it's own advanced AESA powered APG-79 radar, 11 hardpoints that can sling air-to-air missiles (AAM) such as the AIM-120D AMRAAM or AIM-9X short-ranged AAM's with JMHCS (able to shoot off-boresight capability,) on top of a plethora of modern precision guided munitions, it should be plausible to consider that for almost half the price, the Super Hornet would be a prudent compromise. (you got the Osprey and H-1 upgrades that you wanted and paid more for.) I would recommend the two-seat Fox models with an NFO in the back, as the Marines in particular value the FAC-(A) capability. (If only Dick Cheney had not foolishly axed the F-14D in mid-production after the first Gulf War!)
|USN F/A-18F with Maverick air-to-ground missile|
Marine Super Hornets would also create obvious synergies with the Navy's EA-18G Growler fleet, which they have now transitioned to out from their Vietnam era EA-6B Prowlers. The Marines intend to continue sole-operating their EA-6B's for at least a few more years.
The V-22 is perhaps a great aircraft to procure in small numbers for special operations where costs are not as high of a priority: it's good looking, offers greater speed and longer range (for when you can actually use it: the Shitters and Skids are still limited by their traditional rotary-winged speeds,) and it has a great modern cockpit that makes it easier for pilots to fly and fight. However and unfortunately for all, I believe given the exorbitant initial price (on top of the $10 billion of RDT&E) of the aircraft coupled with the less than optimal operating costs, hindsight will prove the decision to make the V-22 the most numerous aircraft type of the entire Marine Air Wing at the very least, a fiscally imprudent decision.
|Marine EA-6B Prowlers have played a very important role in the War on Terror|