Actually, the V-22 Ain’t Half Bad
Stop comparing tiltrotors and helicopters
Jack McCain gets a lot of things right in his recent critique of the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor. I can’t argue over the high cost and tactical shortfalls of this aircraft. Nor would I contradict a U.S. Navy pilot with regards to a tiltrotor’s limitations compared to a helicopter. One time a Marine Corps Cobra pilot tried to explain auto-rotation to me, a mere infantry officer—I never asked again.
But McCain’s gripe reads the same as it might have when the Marine Corps began fielding squadrons of Ospreys in 2006 or 2007—it’s dated. His argument is flawed in one serious way. It’s a false dichotomy to present the V-22 as a one-for-one replacement for the older CH-46.
Secondly, McCain makes no mention of a key platform that directly addresses the shortfalls he notes, the UH-1Y Venom, known as the Huey to everyone else.
McCain’s completely factual piece is disingenuous because his argument stops short of demonstrating exactly how the Marines have managed to overcome the often expensive shortcomings of an undeniably impressive aircraft.
After reading his periodic reminder, I’m left with the sense that he misses something entirely about Marines. They make it work.
For my part, the numbers McCain presents don’t lead me to conclude the Osprey is a piece of junk or that it doesn’t work. It is a fair argument to say it costs too much if you replace a $6-million CH-46 with a $100-million V-22, even adjusting for inflation. That’s not a good deal.
But, the Osprey didn’t replace the CH-46—it displaced the CH-46. The older copter made way for an entirely new type of aircraft, not another helicopter. To compare the V-22 to the CH-46 isn’t fair. The MV-22’s added costs don’t buy another medium-lift helicopter. That money pays for an advanced tiltrotor aircraft with far-and-away greater capabilities.
Have you ever seen an Osprey take off? It’s incredible. When the pilot can pull full power, it looks like a jump jet in a sci-fi film. It moves in a way that most people aren’t used to seeing. Helicopters don’t move like that. Yes, McCain, it does look cool!
But the Osprey’s fragility and susceptibility to heat are notable weaknesses. Tactics change to account for this, though. To argue that an V-22 is junk because it doesn’t loiter like a CH-46 is to assume that the V-22 is a helicopter and should loiter like one.
It’s not a helicopter. It’s a tilt-rotor aircraft. It should act accordingly.
To prevent overheating, Osprey pilots avoid helicopter mode. They quickly transition to plane mode and move around their objective. That makes them a much harder target to hit and preserves the delicate prop-box. Ground troops know this and make sure not to expose the V-22 to excessive loiter when requesting pick-up.
After decades of service, the old CH-46s had limited capability. The littoral combat zone, a main venue for future conflict, requires aircraft with longer range and greater lift than the CH-46 could offer.
Contrary to the paper specifications McCain cites, no CH-46 I have ever flown in ever carried 14 troops over a distance of 160 miles. Marines planned for 12 combat-loaded troops, max—and often planned for just eight. Admittedly, the V-22 advertises 24 troops, but planners shoot for no more than 18 combat-loaded Marines.
The V-22 might be limited to 233 miles on a single tank, but surprisingly McCain doesn’t mention that it can also refuel in flight. This effectively gives the Osprey indefinite range, provided tankers are available.
Oh yeah, and it does it all at incredible speed. The CH-46 cruised at 140 knots while the Osprey moves at 240 knots in airplane mode—and maxes out over 300 knots.
In practice, the Osprey’s upsides are undeniable. In 2011 during the initial phases of Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya, Marines and sailors in V-22s and AV-8B jump jets quickly recovered a shot-down Air Force F-15 crew from more than 100 miles away. No other aircraft in the area—and certainly not the CH-46—could respond with such speed and at such distance.
What about escort? Well, the Marines work around that, too. I return to the 2011 recovery mission. On that mission, Ospreys didn’t have attached escorts, but instead used their speed and maneuvers to protect themselves. They eventually met up with Air Force and Marine jets providing air security at the recovery site. There are methods by which fast-moving jets can provide over-top security for helicopters … or tiltrotors. It’s not a new problem.
As McCain points out, brown-out really sucks. I can only attest to that fact as a grunt who has been on the ground on the receiving end of such a dust storm—and in the back of an aircraft trying to land in opaque darkness. One can only imagine the stress and terror a V-22 pilot experiences trying to land in sandy conditions.
Again, here Marines and operators work around this by sequencing their landings, by picking landing zones wisely and by managing their approach and the rotating nacelles so that the rotor wash will actually blow away the dust. Helicopters can’t do that.
What’s old is new. McCain makes no mention of the unsung hero here that covers the gaps left behind by the CH-46. The UH-1 originally saw service in Vietnam alongside the CH-46. And the brand-new UH-1Y model has resumed a prominent role in Marine aviation.
It does casualty evacuation, provides offensive air support, command and control and moves troops. The things the V-22 can’t do—especially boarding missions—the UH-1 is great at.
The UH-1 can get into LZs that even the CH-46 could not—all while carrying eight or more troops. It is a nimble aircraft. That iconic photo of Americans evacuating Saigon? That’s a Huey carefully perched on that building. Can’t do that with a CH-46, either.
What’s more, the CH-46 and its pilots benefited from institutional knowledge and skill that comes with decades of flying and fighting. Give the V-22 and Marines some time to find the sweet spots in this young platform.
When it comes to boarding missions—it’s true, the V-22 must take a back seat. Ask any grunt to rope-in from a V-22 and he reluctantly will oblige. Exactly as McCain describes, the rope thrashes, as the rotor-wash wreaks havoc while in a hover.
So Marines entirely avoid this problem. Maritime Response Forces use the UH-1s and Navy MH-60s when boarding vessels. The MH-60 can carry upwards of 11 troops and loiter to quickly insert a boarding team. Marines used to use the CH-46 as a sniper platform during such missions, but today the UH-1 handsomely fills in.
We should not view V-22s as one-for-one replacements for CH-46s. It’s like getting a new iPhone circa 2007 and complaining that it doesn’t do T9 predictive text. Just because the Osprey doesn’t match the CH-46 role-for-role doesn’t mean it’s a piece of junk. The V-22 does new things in new ways.
Couple the UH-1 with the V-22 and nobody misses the CH-46.