Navy Ospreys Could Do More Than Haul Cargo
Controversial tiltrotor can refuel other planes, transport commandos and fire rockets
In a surprise move, the U.S. Navy reportedly decided in early January to replace its roughly three-dozen old C-2 Greyhound aircraft carrier delivery planes with new V-22 Osprey tiltrotors.
Critics contend that the complex Osprey—which takes off and lands like a helicopter but flies like an airplane thanks to its rotating engine nacelles—makes a poor cargo hauler, as it lacks range, payload and a pressurized cabin.
But boosters tout the $70-million V-22’s flexibility. And now the Navy has pointed out that it can do more with a fleet of Ospreys than merely lug supplies between ships and shore.
And it’s true. For all its faults, the Osprey is already flying transport and commando missions with the Marines and Air Force as the MV-22 and CV-22, respectively. And in recent tests, the Boeing-Bell tiltrotor has proved it can also launch missiles and refuel other planes.
If the Navy goes to the trouble of adequately training the pilots, the new HV-22 Carrier Onboard Delivery aircraft, or COD, could be a future flattop’s jack of all trades—moving cargo, passing fuel to strike jets, speeding Navy SEALs into combat zones and launching rockets at enemy forces.
The Website Breaking Defense obtained a Jan. 5. Navy memo reportedly naming the V-22 the winner of a long, bitter contest to replace the decades-old, twin-turboprop C-2.
The Navy wants to buy a dozen Ospreys between 2018 and 2020—and presumably dozens more after that. The sailing branch’s current requirement is for more than 40 CODs.
Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus seemingly confirmed the memo’s contents on Jan. 15. And Sean Stackley, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, offered an explanation for the decision.
“When you look at the MV-22 as the COD, it’s much more than a COD aircraft and then you have to take a look at that and ask yourself—given all the capability of the MV-22, all that other capability that you get, all the different ways you can employ that aircraft just as the COD, what that would mean in terms of the air wing, the carrier, the other ships in the carrier battle group,” Stackley said, according to the news Website of the U.S. Naval Institute.
The old Greyhound, in service in various versions since the mid-1960s, does just the one thing—haul people and cargo from shore bases to the Navy’s aircraft carriers. A C-2 can carry a five-ton payload up to 1,500 miles.
A V-22 with the same payload can travel at most 50 miles. The tiltrotor COD will likely lug much smaller loads than than the C-2 routinely does.
But based on Stackley’s comment, it appears the sailing branch wants to HV-22 to do much more than delivery, even if the Osprey can’t match the C-2’s range and payload or fly as high as the Greyhound does, owing to the tiltrotor’s unpressurized cabin.
To be sure, the Navy badly needs new tanker planes and commando transports—two roles the V-22 could fill. At present, the sailing branch’s carrier air wings lack dedicated aerial refueling planes for extending the range of the main F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters.
So Super Hornets themselves must double as tankers, packing special underbody fuel pods that reel out hoses for other fighters to plug in to. At present, one out of every five Super Hornet flights is a tanker mission.
A carrier air wing has only four dozen fighters, at most. Tanking needs effectively reduce a wing to 35 or so Hornets. It should go without saying that the Navy would love to have a new tanker to free up its fighters for, you know, actual fighting. Industry officials have gone as far as to propose that the Navy’s future carrier-launched attack drone could double as a refueling plane starting in the 2020s.
Not coincidentally, in late 2013, Boeing tested a roll-on tanker kit for the V-22. The Osprey flies fast enough to refuel jets … and slow enough to also pass gas to helicopters. In late 2014, the Marine Corps said it would buy tanker kits for its force of MV-22s, which could eventually number 288 airframes. The Navy could do the same for its HV-22s.
Likewise, the Navy could benefit from acquiring new aircraft to support Special Operations Forces. At present, the sailing branch maintains two reserve squadrons with HH-60 helicopters for transporting SEALs and other commandos into battle.
But the HH-60s are old and expensive to operate. The Navy wants to shut down both squadrons in order to save as much as $100 million per year.
There’s a catch. “As long as the Navy has SOF elements that conduct a very specific maritime mission, they require assets that can support them,” Cmdr. Rick Nelson, a retired Navy copter pilot, told Navy Times.
Consider that the Air Force is buying at least 50 CV-22s for Special Operations Forces tasks. The Navy’s HV-22s could do similar work, albeit not at the same level of proficiency as the single-mission Air Force machines.
The Navy could also take advantage of the Marines’ efforts to add forward-firing rockets and missiles to the V-22. Armed HV-22s could destroy small boats threatening the carrier or blast enemy defenders before landing to unload SEALs.
To be sure, there are profound disadvantages to replacing the C-2 with the V-22. The carrier resupply mission could suffer.
But if the Navy can find a way to adequately train Osprey crews for a wide range of tasks, it might at least enjoy a consolation prize—a new COD aircraft that’s also a tanker and an armed commando transport.