Tuesday, March 28, 2017

V-22 Osprey cost Marines over $30 billion more than comparable alternative

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. 
UH-1Y Remora
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
At about $65m each for an F/A-18F Super Hornet, the Marines could have used another $6.27 billion of $30 billion saved on 96 Foxtrot Super Hornets to replace all of their F/A-18D's that they use in their VMFA(AW) squadrons. By buying into the Super Hornet program, this would have enabled the Corps to share synergies of costs with the Navy, and bring those aircraft aboard the Navy carriers (something that the Delta Hornets were never allowed to do because of their short range due to the F/A-18D's having to take out a fuel tank to accommodate for the second crew member.)  This would have helped the Marines meet their obligation with the Navy to field a certain number of fixed-wing fighter jets on full sized Navy carriers, and they would not have had to buy into the F-35C's as they are, to solely operate off Navy big-deck carriers. (Link)

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.
Marine EA-6B Prowlers have played a very important role in the War on Terror
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. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The USAF is toying with the possibility of sole-sourcing US Army UH-60M Blackhawk's from Lockheed Martin to replace their aging UH-1N Huey's, at a cost of $2.4 BILLION dollars. In order to sole-source a contact like this, the USAF has to come up with a convincing argument to Congress, as to why they either don't have the time to spare, and/or why there are no other viable solutions, to the sole-source contract.


Lawmakers want to stop USAF sole source Lockheed Martin contract

Currently, the USAF has 59 UH-1N's in active duty inventory, and per the USAF website, the mission of the UH-1N in Air Force trim is as below:

The UH-1N is a light-lift utility helicopter used to support various missions. The primary missions include: airlift of emergency security forces, security and surveillance of off-base nuclear weapons convoys, and distinguished visitor airlift. Other uses include: disaster response operations, search and rescue, medical evacuation, airborne cable inspections, support to aircrew survival school, aerial testing, routine missile site support and transport.


Is the UH-60M overkill for this mission in the USAF? First off, the UH-60M is a medium lift helicopter by all means, so right off the bat the USAF needs to compel it's audience to believe it needs the additional capability. Second, the FY15 fly away costs for a UH-60M are about $16.96m, so at 60 airframes, that is only $1.017 billion. Now I'm sure there is a whole package that includes spares and logistics involved in the deal, (and maybe a few palms being greased,) but how again does the USAF get to $2.4 billion to sole-source a platform already in full rate, active production for the US Army?

US Army UH-60M


The logical choice of course, would be the UH-72A Lakota that the US Army originally began to procure for domestic use in large part to make up for the numbers of more expensive UH-60's serving overseas in the War on Terror. There is nothing that the UH-1N can do that the UH-72A cannot do and do a better job of. If the USAF needs a comparable replacement helicopter for the UH-1N that is proven capable and already in production for the US military, the Lakota price for performance cannot be beat. For half the purchase price of a UH-60M Blackhawk and anywhere from 30% to 50% less costly to operate than a UH-60M Blackhawk, and the UH-72 seems like the ideal candidate.

The UH-72 cruises about 15 knots faster than the UH-1N, can still carry up to 8 passengers compared to the 11 of the UH-60M, and costs almost half the price of the UH-60M in FY15 dollars, $8.56m each versus $16.96m each.

At the very least, the USAF needs to define a set of requirements and solicit bids to match capability for the dollar, but the UH-72A would still be the most logical aircraft to replace the UH-1N. If anything, I could see the USAF sole sourcing the UH-72A on the grounds that there is nothing near it in terms of price and capability. 

US Army UH-72A Lakota


Sunday, April 20, 2014

Let's face it - the Marines blew their Air Wing budget on the F-35B, MV-22, and H-1 upgrade when they otherwise could have bought tried and true, off the shelf F/A-18F, MH-60S, and AH-64D's.

The US Navy has proven that the F/A-18F can replace legacy Hornets, the MH-60S works just fine  replacing CH-46D's off LHD's with their Army like aft tail wheels, and the British proved over Libya that yes, indeed you can operated AH-64D's off sea going flights decks with no problem.

The US Marine Corps needs to be realistic and do the fiscally prudent thing and just like the US Navy, replace their EA-6B's with EA-18G's.

Boeing's Growler Takes Aim at Lockheed Martin's F-35 



Thursday, August 23, 2012

Newsflash to the U.S. Marine Corps - the EA-18G Growler is available now, and all you have to do is pay for it.

The Royal Australian Air Force will buy into the EA-18G Growler program, the same aircraft the U.S. Navy is using to replace their EA-6B Prowlers with. The U.S. Navy is presently performing the electronic attack/warfare mission alongside U.S. Marine Prowlers as well, and have been active participants in the efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular with IED's.

Australia To Convert Super Hornets To Electronic-Attack Growlers

Upgrades to an F/A-18F that comprise of the EA-18G Growler

The U.S. Navy  has invested heavily into the Super Hornet program, replacing all their Grumman F-14's and then some with the platform. While I would argue that the Super Hornet is a much better replacement for the legacy Hornet than it will ever be for the F-14, the fact of the matter is that the program has otherwise been very successful in delivering a modern platform that is both easy to operate as it is to maintain.

In other words, it accomplishes the mission while not busting the budget. In fact, depending upon all the economies of scale that go with a large order, you can nearly get two Super Hornets for the price of one F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Once again, the F-35B is a great aircraft to replace the AV-8B Harrier with, even if it does cost exponentially greater than the Harriers ever did, even adjusting for inflation. However, why buy 80 F-35C's to operate off the Navy's nuclear powered aircraft carriers, when you can save money and satisfy the agreement with the Navy with the Super Hornet? This agreement between the Navy and Marine Corps is one the Marines would undoubtedly probably prefer not to have to perform (see the LHA(R) if you require further proof,) if they were not otherwise obligated to, but the Marines are still part of the Department of the Navy, and the relationship works both ways

Even better, by replacing their F/A-18D's with F/A-18F's, the Marines can retain their VMFA(AW) squadrons used specifically in the aerial forward air controller role, or FAC(A), which has been a crucial role to the grunts and special operators on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. The two seat Delta Hornets have been useful for the Corps in carrying out the mission of the Air Wing which is to support the grunts on the ground, and there is little argument that two sets of eyeballs will always be superior to one in a hostile, contested airspace. (F-35's are single seat only.)

U.S. Navy EA-18G over NAS Patuxent River
But F/A-18F's unlike the F/A-18D's that the Marines presently use, are welcome aboard the Navy's nuclear carriers because they have a useful minimum range. In order to make room for the second person in the F/A-18D, fuel tanks were removed in the fuselage and in turn, resulted in an aircraft that would have a dangerously low combat radius, and so they have never deployed on Navy carriers like their Marine single seat Hornets have.

So instead of buying 80 F-35C's to satisfy the agreement with the Navy and their carrier air wings, why not save some of our uncle's (Sam) money that he really doesn't have anyways, (40¢ of every dollar borrowed goes to China,) and buy 80 F/A-18F's pre-wired to be able to be converted into EA-18G Growlers? This will also enable the Marines to save a tremendous amount of money by retiring their EA-6B Prowlers as the Navy is doing, and save the Marines the exorbitant operating costs that go along with being the last remaining sole operator of an aircraft type.

The Marines have a less than exemplary fiscal record as of late when they pay defense contractors to design and develop new aircraft on their accord (V-22 and F-35B,) so let's make amends and do the prudent thing while the opportunity exists. After all, it's the least the Corps can do given the money they vicariously spent developing the Osprey and the STOVL variant of the JSF, (which ironically was the variant in which the Air Force and Navy would be forced to base their versions off of, ref. X-32 vs. X-35.)

Sunday, August 19, 2012

USS America LHA-6 - Is it still amphibious without a well-deck?

As the new USS America LHA-6 nears completion in Pascagoula, Mississippi, it becomes more and more apparent to even all that weren't previously paying attention, that the United States has effectively begun to field a new smaller sized class of aircraft carrier, similar to a class used in World War II that was known as an "escort" carrier. The namesake AMERICA previously had a storied 31 year tradition as a real aircraft carrier who served three tours in Vietnam, Operation El Dorado Canyon over Libya in 1986, and Operation Desert Storm over Iraq in 1991, and it's sort of a defamation of character of sots that it wasn't given a new Ford class carrier to bear it's name, rather than what has become a somewhat awkward vessel.

Really what it comes down to, the new USS America should not be an LHA, it should be a CVA - but that probably would have attracted too much attention in Congress.

USS America (LHA-6)
Almost as if those that be in Congress thought they could not only pull the wool over the sheep's eye of all the other lawmakers in Congress who don't know anything about defense, they continued to approve the funding of this new class even after the well deck was taken out. And of course they thought the American People (otherwise known as the taxpayers) wouldn't be able to smell the pork in the deal either, of course. 

The Navy may as well let a Marine aviator skipper the boat for the way the Navy capitulated to the Congress and Marine Corps when they let them get away with taking out the well deck.  (At least they got the Marines to agree that they wouldn't be operating F-35B's off their carriers.)

Why? Money, or rather more precisely: Funding.

The USS George H. Bush (CVN-77) cost a little over $6 billion to make. (Don't even ask how much the new CVN-21 Ford class carriers are going to cost once you weigh in the Research & Development costs.) The new two-ship America class, (and let's hope there will only be the two as the LHD is more capable and far less expensive,) the America will cost a little over $3 billion, and the LHA-7 USS Tripoli was just awarded by the Navy on 31 May, 2012 for $2.38 billion. link 

An LHD class ship similar to the USS Makin Island (LHD-8) costs around $750 million dollars.

Because this new class is essentially an aircraft carrier, it directly takes away from the Navy's argument for needing (even more) expensive, nuclear powered, full sized aircraft carriers. And the air wings that operate off of it. Why spend all that money on the new class of Ford carriers when you can spend half the price and get an aircraft carrier like this? To a salvo of Iranian anti-ship Mehrab missiles in the Straits of Hormuz, or Chinese Dong Feng DF-21D Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBM),why spend billions on CVN's when you can spend half the amount on a new LHA(R)?

USS Essex (LHD-2)
See what is missing in the picture of LHA-6 above? That's right, the LHD shown here to the left has a well deck that can be flooded so it can carry the landing craft (LCAC and LCU's) that bring all the Marines ground vehicles to shore. Remember what the purpose of the Marine Air Wing is? That's right - to support the Marine on the ground. Seems kind of the other way around in this regard.

What good is the Amphibious Readiness Group (ARG) if they can't get any vehicles to shore? How will a standard three ship ARG make up for loss of hull space for all their ground vehicles? Surely the answer isn't to add a fourth LPD or LPH to the ARG, that certainly would not be cost effective.

A typical Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) will float with three Gator-Navy ships comprised of either an LHD or LHA at the center, and two other supporting LPD's or LPH's, (in addition to of course, a standard Navy CG, DDG, FFG, and SSN that together form to comprise the entire Amphibious Squadron.) So if you take away the well deck on the largest of the three ships carrying the Marines ground equipment, where is all that going to go?

A typical 2,200 Marine MEU will in addition to the composite air element (ACE) aboard, carry 4 60+ ton M1A1 main battle tanks, up to 16 LAV's, up to 15 AAV's, a couple 16 ton D7 bulldozers, 60+ HUMVEE's, and 30 7-ton MTVR's. The Marine on the ground is supported by the vehicles on the ground, and they are supported by the Wing.

F-35B on USS Wasp (LHD-1) in October, 2011
I know the Corps needs more space to house their future F-35 fleet, because only 80 of the 420 link that they intend to buy will be Charlie variants optimized to operate off CVN's where all their F/A-18's Hornets presently do, but robbing Peter to pay Paul doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Make no mistake, the new America class of LHA's is literally the ship built around the F-35B.

Instead of those 80 F-35C's that they are going to use on CVN's anyways, they ought to save the money and just buy what the Navy is already using in the F/A-18F, which is perfectly suited for the FAC(A) role that the present Marine F/A-18D's utilize, (of whom because their range is so low, aren't even allow to deploy with the CVW's.) And those F/A-18F's could all be pre-wired so as to relatively easily be converted into EA-18G's, which again the Navy is readily replacing their EA-6B's with. But not the Marines, oh no. Solider on (or should we say Marine-on?) as the last sole operator of the type, and they are going to pay through the nose in hourly costs as opposed to solving a need, and saving money in the long run with a far less expensive to operate modern Super Hornet. 

USN F/A-18
Better yet, replacing all present Marine F-18's with Super Hornets like the Navy has, could have saved a lot of money, too. Replacing an AV-8B with an F-35B is great, but an F/A-18A/C with an F-35 is not as easy to justify. Remember, the F/A-18 was the loser (to the F-16) in the USAF's Lightweight Fighter (LWF) program in the late 1970's, which were both intended to offer a low-cost alternative to the expensive F-15 (and F-14's on the Navy's side.) Even taking inflation into account, replacing $20m-$25m legacy Hornets with $75m to $100m F-35's when they could otherwise get a great deal on F-18E/F's for $50m, is an awful Saudi Arabian-esque like gesture.

Save money and field a comparable (if not superior in many aspects) force at the same time? Sounds a little déjà vu considering the Marines went the opposite direction as well with the H-1 upgrade. MH-60S and AH-64D III's would have been vastly superior to the UH-1Y and AH-1Z's - and yet at the same time could have been done for far less money to boot. What a marvel concept that would be.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

How Much Can the Marine Corps Continue to Spend?

Apparently when some Marine Hornet pilots had the opporunity to fly the Navy's newer Super Hornets, they ended up in a pickle when they gave their honest (favorable) impressions of the aircraft. link Apparently since then, new direction from Marine Generals prohibit these Marine Hornet instructor pilots from even flying these Super Hornets.

It's actions like these by the elder Marine Generals that baffle me - they're trying to balance old school Marine Corps (stubborn) grit with this chimerical spending spree like a teenager with their (not really) wealthy Uncle (named Sam.)

But these elder Generals can't have it both ways.

USMC M-60A1 in Desert Storm in 1991
The Marines have always been good about selecting and keeping proven, tried-and-true equipment from their rifles, to their tanks, to their aircraft. In the early days of Vietnam when the US Army began fielding the new smaller caliber M-16 rifle, the Marines were reluctant at first to give up their trusty but heavier M-14t. When the Navy began to replace their F-4 Phantom jets with F-14 Tomcats in the early 70's, the Corps was reluctant because they envisioned a less expensive alternative, in what they later found in the F/A-18 Hornet in 1984. In 1991 during Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, Marines were still using M-60 Patton tanks while the Army began using the uber-modern M-1 tanks in 1980. And when the Army decided to give up their Bell AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters for much advanced AH-64 Apache gunships, the Marines stubbornly decided to carry on with the Cobra's, even choosing to further upgrade them to the AH-1W standard in 1984 about the time the Army started to activate the Apache.    
Unfortunately I believe the Marines deviated from this tried and true formula when they, under a new (Clinton) administration (remember SECDEF Dick Cheney under George H. Bush originally tried to cancel the program four times in four years citing it was too expensive and the technology was just not there,) continued to find the funding for the V-22 Osprey in the mid 1990's. Instead of paying all the money that they ended up spending just to get it to a point as to where they could begin to replace the CH-46's, the Corps could have replaced the entire Marine Medium Helicopter community multiple times over with readily available alternatives such as the Sikorsky H-60 Hawk series helicopters (that every other service branch had transitioned to,) or even went back to the UK like they did the Harrier and bought their AW-101 medium lift helicopter, which is still the best medium lift helicopter in the world.

And then there is the unit cost of each Osprey, something like 2 to 3 times more than those same alternatives depending upon how you tally it. You can't replace the bulk of the entire Marine Air Wing with something that even relative speaking, is two to three times more expensive than what you are trying to replace without asking the logical question, "how can the Corps afford this?" link Think of it this way - Boeing will sell you an F/A-18 Super Hornet for less money than they will a V-22 Osprey!

The first thing the Marines will tell you about the V-22 when defending it is the wonderful increase in speed it enjoys over traditional rotary-winged aircraft. Sure, speed is great and it's difficult - but not impossible to defend. You see, when the Marines later choose (for the second time mind you) to go in an alternate direction that of the Army, and upgrade these Bell H-1 helicopters one final time, they all but readily admitted that nothing else in the Marine Air Wing shy of the fixed wing communities, were going to be able to keep up with the Osprey's anyways. So if you fly everybody in together at the same time, you're Osprey's are going to be flying at the same slow speeds that far less expensive traditional rotary-winged helicopters operate. If they fly in first or last and utilize their speed, well then their on their own and give a whole new meaning to the unofficial Marine Corps motto of "hurry up and wait."

 link,) and "we're just upgrading existing airframes," which as we now know, turned out to only be a small very small number of airframes because as they got into it, realized that it would be cheaper to just buy new airframes than try and re-build some of these old, old airframes. Point is the Marines could have had new and far superior aircraft (MH-60S and AH-64D) 5 years earlier and even saved billions. I like Bell helicopter as well as anyone, but you tell me.
British Apache aboard HMS Illustrious
So the Marines overspent their allowance on the V-22 and then turned around and did the same thing all over again, (a second conscious time,) and instead of buying MH-60's and AH-64's, they paid Bell (economic stimulus?) money to R&D new variants of their same old aircraft. Of course when they were selling the idea to Congress they said things like "we don't know if we can use the AH-64 on the LHA/D's," (something the British have proved fully possible with recent operations in Libya.

And then there is the issue of jets.

USMC F/A-18C during OIF
The F-35B is a great platform to replace the AV-8B without question. However, even the British who originally created the V/STOL aircraft and were always it's biggest champion, inevitably saw the lack of value in STOVL and and cancelled their F-35B's and have replaced their order for F-35C's for use off of what will now be full-fledged CATOBAR (catapult and arresting wire) aircraft carriers under development. I can buy the theory that the F-35B is to replace the Marine Harriers, however I cannot buy the premise of replacing Marine legacy Hornets (remember - the loser of the USAF Lightweight (read: cheap) Fighter (LWF) program in the late 70's) with F-35B's by any means. 

In March 2011 the Marines and the Navy signed a Memorandum of Understanding link stating that the Marines would buy navalized F-35C's for use off of Navy full-sized nuclear powered aircraft carrier's, as the Navy didn't want STOVL F-35B's operating on their decks when they were not optimized for their CATOBAR environment like the F-35C's are. But how can the Marines possibly justify this expenditure when for 2/3's to 3/4's of the price they can buy F/A-18 Super Hornets? Especially after the Marines went premium price with the V-22 and the H-1 upgrades, how can they with a straight face ask for the extra money to buy F-35C's to operate off full sized Navy carrier decks?
Marine F/A-18D at Al Asad airbase in Iraq

The Marines operate a handful of (AW) or All Weather fighter/attack squadrons using the F/A-18D, which has a second crew member in tandem for the better provision of carrying out the aerial forward air controller (FAC(A)) task that has become so important to the grunts and special forces on the ground in Afghanistan, for example. However, because the Delta model has such little range with a second crew member, the Navy does not even invite these squadrons onto their full sized carriers because they are more of a burden then they are an asset because they have such a paltry range. But if the Marines replaced even these squadrons alone with F/-18F's, this all-important mission can carry on (FAC(A) in a single piloted JSF is not it's primary intended mission) and even expound upon current capabilities by being able to finally operate off Navy carriers. This is such an obvious and logical reasoning, it really makes the lawmakers approving the funds for this look like they haven't a clue. 

Unfortunately the top leadership in the Corps appear to still think they have yet reach their credit limit on their Uncle's credit card, and that they can continue to swipe it on unnecessary (over)expenditures. 

EA-6B at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan
The Navy for yet another example, are retiring their Electronic Attack Warfare (EAW) EA-6B Prowlers with EAW versions of the Super Hornet dubbed EA-18G's. But guess what - the Marines say they want no part of these new Growlers and that they will carry on with their EA-6B's exclusively until their new JSF's can find (or rather fund) an EAW of that platform. EA-6B's presently carry four crew members, while the EA-18G's carry just two - and yet the Marines think they are going to be able to get the F-35 (B model at that,) to do EAW with just one crew member? This means the Marines will pay through the nose to continue to operate a very important asset (these aircraft are operated by Navy, Marine, and Air Force crew in Afghanistan link to help trip IED's for convoys on the ground,) because these aircraft will be very old and thereby maintenance and operating costs will be exorbitant compared to the Navy's new EA-18G's.
LHA-6 America - an entire new class of aircraft carrier?

When will this foolish if not irresponsible (LHA-6 - an amphibious assault ship minus the amphibious well deck for the amphibious assault vehicles?) procurement end with today's Marine Corps? How much further of a hole will our Congress continue to let the Marines dig for themselves?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

How the Marine Corps can save billions and still end up with a better Air Wing

The V-22 has faced scrutiny ever since the program was originally cancelled under then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney in the first Bush administration. At the time, it was simply deemed too expensive and the tilt-rotor concept not mature enough to further justify continued development. A few years later the program was resurrected under a new administration, with promises and assurances that the Marines could make the program work this time.  Unfortunately a few years later the program began to endure a series of setbacks and failures, coupled with actual causalities on more than one occasion. The program soon found itself again lying with its head in the guillotine about to be terminated, only to be granted one final reprieve. 

Since then, the aircraft has proven itself in Iraq according to the Marines, and the entire East Cost fleet of medium lift CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters have been replaced by MV-22 Ospreys.  Apparently the critics who used to say the aircraft couldn’t work have been squelched, as the aircraft is meeting and even exceeding expectations according to the Marines. The aircraft can not only fly faster overall, but it can accelerate faster as well which can be a significant advantage when dropping off Marines or supplies in a contested landing zone. For all that it does well however, it is not without some drawbacks. It was never designed from the onset to carry self-defense weapons such as that of the CH-46E it’s intending to replace, for example. The Marines tried a remotely operated machine gun on a turret mounted underneath the aircraft, but the plane sits too low to the ground to begin with and its extra weight and cumbersome operation just did not warrant its place on the aircraft in the real world battlefields of Afghanistan. And because of the low posture of the aircraft, if the gun was deployed the aircraft couldn’t land, and there was more than one aborted landing before crew chiefs finally convinced the pilots that it just was not worth the weight or the hassle.

The CH-46E’s for example, aircraft that were originally designed in the late 1950’s by the Boeing Vertol Company, would mount two World War II era M2 .50 caliber machine guns with one on each side, giving the aircraft at least some punch. Even the pod mounted light machine gun from the rear ramp on the V-22 was an afterthought at best, because with the more narrow fuselage of the Osprey, the rear ramp is the only way any of the infantry or supplies are getting off that bird with the rotors turning. At least you have a little firing arc from the rear when you’re departing, it’s not as good as the aircraft it replaced in that regard, but it’s better than nothing. It’s also not a great replacement in the navalized Search and Rescue role, only because of the downwash that that Osprey has when in vertical hovering mode due to not only the prop rotors, but also the jet wash of its two jet engines at high power pointed vertically downward – it would literally push any downed pilot under the water when it went to try and pick them up. The Navy replaced their final remaining CH-46D’s that they used for vertical replenishment and SAR, with Sikorsky MH-60S’s. 

So maybe the V-22 isn’t perfect, but the Marines love its greater top speed. Unfortunately for the rest of troop movers in the Marine Air Wing, its traditional rotary winged aircraft are and are staying, rotary winged. The Bell helicopter H-1 Huey and AH-1 attack variant in the Cobra are all being upgraded to Yankee and Zulu model configuration, respectfully – so they won’t be able to keep up with the Ospreys. And neither the heavy lift community will be able to as well, for the Sikorsky H-53 Sea Stallions are actively being slotted for replacement with an all new upgraded variant in the Kilo model. 

The Marines tried to save money on the H-1 upgrades versus going out and buying all new aircraft, but after they sold the decision makers on the deal, as they got into it Bell determined for the vast majority of the airframes, that it would just be cheaper and easier to build all new airframes. So instead of acquiring the world’s premier attack helicopter in the AH-64 Apache, the Marines gave a lot of money to Bell to tweak the world’s original attack helicopter of the early 1960’s, one last time. The British even used their Apache helicopters from small aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean for operations in Libya, so the premise that the Apache was not able to be operated from sea as the Marines had at one time argued, has long since been debunked. Same goes with the venerable H-1 Huey, the first turbine powered helicopter the U.S. military every bought back before the U.S. was even in Vietnam.  

British Army Apache flying from HMS Ocean, conducted operational sorties over Libya in 2011.

Instead of simply buying the Sikorsky H-60 Hawk series of medium lift helicopters that every other branch of the United States military operates, (not to mention a handful of other Federal agencies and numerous foreign militaries, too,) a lot of money was thrown Bell helicopter’s way just to upgrade the Huey, one final time.  

The point being that thre was a lot of money spent just to get to the point to where you could begin to procure a replacement, and at that only something that arguably was not even as good as the readily available alternatives. And again, none of them can fly as fast as the tilt-rotored V-22’s. The V-22 cost over $10 billion dollars just to get it to the point where it could begin to replace aircraft in the actual Fleet Marine Force, and the first buy to get them up to the point where we are now at cost about as much as that amount as well. 

So now the Marines are asking the Navy and Congress to give them another multibillion dollar check to buy the second half of the envisioned buy, so that all the Marines medium lift helicopters can be replaced by the V-22. Minus the cost of the two Rolls Royce engines, estimates have been something in the neighborhood of around $65 million a copy – and that’s not even including the cost of the single most expensive part on the entire aircraft being the engine! Keep in mind, the same Boeing will sell you a late model F/A-18 Super Hornet for less than that and that price includes its two engines! There have been reports that these engines are failing to meet expectations, with some of them only lasting 10 or 20 hours each before having to be replaced. Those numbers resemble the early B-29’s that Boeing rushed to the Pacific towards the end of the World War II, and even that was only because the eventual intended engines were not ready yet. Of course, when you take a jet engine and want to operate it from zero to 90 degrees in the vertical, it would pose for a challenge for any engine manufacturer. The good news however is that apparently all the Marines believe it will take to solve this issue is just more money. 

So the V-22 now works for the most part, well sort of at least. It may not do everything its predecessor did, or even do them as well in some regards, but it does have a great modern flight deck that greatly aids the pilots in doing their jobs, and let’s not forget about the speed. Coupled with the high price tags and perhaps even greater operational costs, I’m seriously beginning to think the V-22 might best be utilized in a small number, elite capability sort of way, similar to that of a Special Forces operator. Special Forces operators as you might know cost significantly more to train, sustain, and expel so you can’t expect to wield an entire Army full of them, instead you keep them in strategic reserve and only utilize them in specialized, defined roles. I think the V-22 is the Special Forces of the medium lift category, and it’s great to have them. However, you still have to have comprise the bulk of your fleet with a traditional, tried and true, and let’s face it – more economical regular soldier, or in this case Marine. For less than half the cost of finishing out the V-22 buy in the Marines, they could instead buy the very exact same MH-60S’s that the Navy replaced their CH-46D’s with, complimenting their Air Wing and even adding back some of the capabilities lost. 

Marines boarding Navy MH-60S on USS Kearsarge (LHD-3)
Unfortunately, the Marines should have done this with their UH-1N Huey helicopters instead of spending money to design and develop their new Yankee version.  So to add MH-60S to the Marine Air Wing at this point would really underscore this error in opinion on the direction to point the Air Wing, and we really need to only continue to advance from this point in time, and not waste any further time or money re-hashing the past. So for slightly more than the cost of the MH-60S, (and still only half of what the second V-22 buy would cost,) the Marines should reciprocate with the British and buy their medium lift AW-101 helicopter.  For thirty years now the British have been operating Boeing made heavy-lift CH-47 Chinook helicopters, and they recently just made a purchase for another dozen at that. The Marines are no stranger to buying British aviation equipment with the Harrier of course, and the aircraft has performed marvelously for the British in the high altitudes of Afghanistan. 

British AW101 Merlin HC3 over Afghanistan

That decision alone will save roughly $4 billion up front, and upwards of another $1 to $2 billion more through the life of the platform in reduced operational costs. Next decision is then what to replace what was originally inexpensive legacy F/A-18 Hornets with, F-35B’s, F-35C’s, or dare we say, F/A-18F’s? The F-35B is a great replacement for the Marines AV-8B+ Harriers, but an argument could be made that the STOVL capability is one not really even worth replacing, as that is the decision even the original operators of the Harrier in the British have recently concluded. 

However, replacing legacy F/A-18 Hornets with F-35B’s is foolish, as even the Marines have if even reluctantly recently came to acknowledge when they agreed with the Navy to buy navalized F-35C’s to operate off the Navy’s full sized nuclear powered aircraft carriers. But why should the Marines operate F-35C’s on Navy carriers when they can save what appears to be a common theme, roughly half the cost and instead just buy F/A-18F’s? The Marines don’t need stealth first strike capability when supporting Marines on the ground from full sized Navy carriers, they need airborne bomb trucks who can carry a lot of hard-points for a variety of different munitions, something that a Fox Hornet does particularly well. When you load an F-35B with external stores for a Combat Air Support mission, stealth is no longer a factor because there is no such thing as stealth external fuel tanks and bombs. In fact, current Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack squadrons operate two seat F/A-18D’s in the Airborne Forward Air Controller, or FAC(A) role, where that second Weapons Systems Officer in the rear seat really helps accomplish the mission in supporting the Marines on the ground by offering a second set of eyeballs NVG’s, while also helping to free up some of the weapon deliveries so the pilot can concentrate on flying the aircraft and not getting shot down by the enemy. Long story short, the F/A-18F is the logical, if not ideal replacement for the Marines VMFA(AW) F/A-18D squadrons who currently, do not even deploy on Navy carriers because their internal fuel range is so low, their not deemed worthy of the deck space. Problem solved if they move to two seat Fox Hornets, because no single pilot operated F-35 of any variant will ever be as good in that role as a tandem two seat aircraft.

Boeing F/A-18F and EA-18G
So tally up the savings once again, because the Marines really only need the F-35B to operate off of their fleet of amphibious assault ships. And by “really only need,” I mean “really only really need “the F-35B to replace their AV-8 Harriers. The USS America, LHA-6, which is due to be commissioned in 2012 will be the first of the next generation of amphibious assault vessels for which the U.S. Navy’s affectionately dubbed “Gator Navy” will center around. Unfortunately for nearly everybody involved however, the Marines got the amphibious assault portion of the assault ship removed by cutting out the amphibious well deck used to deploy the hovercraft and landing crafts used to carry the Marines ground vehicles ashore, and installed a larger aircraft hangar bay so that it could carry more STOVL F-35B’s. So for a ship that otherwise resembles a straight deck aircraft carrier from World War II minus any arresting wires in the aft, if the F-35B is cancelled we may as well box this ship up and sell it to China so they can use it off Taiwan or Russia so they can use it off of Georgia as they have asked the French for, because it would be virtually useless to the Gator Navy. Hopefully a little common sense will be restored the the class because the goal of Marine Aviation is not to project air power, it's to provide air power for the Marines on the ground.

So assuming that the F-35B will work and that it won’t be cost prohibitive to procure and or operate, the Marines need the F-35B almost as bad as the Navy needs the F-35C. Going back to the V-22 “Special Forces” analogy, the F/A-18 Super Hornet is the Navy’s “regular” troop and a fine one indeed, but they and their aircraft carriers (and the British as well mind you,) need the F-35C to be if nonetheless, that Special Forces variant. Just like the US Air Force use their F-22’s in small, limited roles, the Navy needs a stealth variant that can provide for a first strike capability, projected from over the horizon at sea via an aircraft carrier.  The Navy lost a certain set of long range strike slash “Special Forces” capability when they retired the F-14 Tomcat and even the A-6 Intruder, something that try as it may, the Super Hornet just does not replace. In turn, carrier battle groups have to move their ships closer to foreign shores to conduct operations than they otherwise previously had to.  With all the time, effort, and good old fashioned money that have been spent on the JSF program, the point of no return has long since passed. Maybe not near as many are actually procured when all is said and done, just as with the B-2 and F-22 final production numbers, but outright termination would just be a complete and utter waste.  The Air Force would have been better off buying new F-16’s like the Navy did with their F-18’s, buying more F-22’s with the savings, and letting the Navy and Marines develop this next generation of aircraft on their own, but that is neither here nor there at this point in time. 

USMC F-35B in STOVL mode
So if the Marines buy F/A-18F’s and just enough F-35B’s to replace their Harriers with, there would be billions of dollars saved and quite frankly, a very potent and diversified stable of capabilities in which to call upon.  By buying into the Super Hornet the Marines take advantage of all the money already spent and invested into it by the U.S. Navy not to mention Royal Australian Air Force as well, and it frees up money to solidify their other top priorities due in the Marine Air Wing such as the F-35B and CH-53K. 

The Marines also would be able to save a lot of money by retiring their EA-6B Prowlers in favor of EA-18G Growlers, the exact same thing that the U.S. Navy is doing just as well. When you become the last sole operators of any military aviation platform, the operating expenses are only certain to very quickly become exorbitant. The Marines will be able to satisfy three birds with one stone in the Super Hornet, all while saving enough money to keep their top priorities in line. Couple this with the immediate as well as the operational lifespan savings of not going in on a second V-22 buy, the Marine Corps can cross the end zone and accomplish their mission by ensuring they will continue to have enough budget to make sure their priorities over the next decade are able to be obtained. Bell Helicopter got a great deal to upgrade the H-1 helicopters not to mention all that they have received thus far on the V-22 Osprey, so they have little room to complain. Boeing gets new and additional Super Hornet orders, and depending on how they bid the VH-71 the second time around with Augusta Westland they could be making the Marines their own version of the AW-101/H-71 aircraft as well, just as they license out the CH-47 to Augusta Westland. And Lockheed still gets the business with their F-35B’s, albeit not quite as many but at this point, that is all but a certain one way or the other as far they should be concerned.

It was reported recently in AviationWeek that the Navy undersecretary Robert Work directed the Navy and Marines in early July to come up with three alternative tactical aviation force structures that saved $5 billion, $7.5 billion, and $10 billion dollars. While no one outside the Pentagon is privy to all of the actual, specific numbers, I would argue that if the Marines made these decisions I described above, there could be savings exceeding the $10 billion figure over the current plan, and yet still even turn out an arguably more capable Air Wing at the same time.