On July 2, 1991, this writer, as a lieutenant colonel, briefed then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft on some helicopter operations conducted during Operation Desert Storm. Scowcroft expressed surprise about the length of missions that had crossed half of Saudi Arabia before going north into Iraq. Cheney asked how we could make helicopters go faster. I told him that the best possibility I knew of was the tilt-rotor, the V-22, which he had recently ordered canceled due to its expense. He allowed that the aircraft would probably be useful for special operations, but would be too expensive to build just for the small fleet needed by special operations forces (SOF).
Two years ago, Lt. Gen. Don Wurster, then the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) commander, said the CV-22 was acquiring a good reputation among U.S. Special Operations Command(USSOCOM) components for its capability and performance. “The customer units like the speed and range of the aircraft, but they really like the crews,” he said. In December 2011, Lt. Gen. Eric Fiel had commanded AFSOC for six months, and when asked about what he thought were the command’s primary issues, he said the CV-22 is performing well – which is not an issue but is worthy of being noticed. He suggested the performance of the machine and its people merited more than a mention and perhaps a magazine article of their own.
Understood is the background that no airplane or helicopter was subjected to as much scrutiny and criticism as was the V-22. In 2000, two accidents occurred during the operational evaluation of the aircraft’s development, which almost resulted in cancellation. There was little love for the hybrid airplane and helicopter tilt-rotor. However, the Marine Corps and USSOCOM stuck with it and got the aircraft procured and deployed.
The arguments for and against the aircraft are best expressed by Mark Thompson, who wrote “V-22 Osprey: A Flying Shame” for Time Magazine in 2007 when the Marines sent their first contingent of MV-22s into Iraq. In 2010, Richard Whittle published “The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey.” Thompson’s data came from the year 2000 and earlier, mostly ignoring any of the corrective actions and the more contemporary flying record of hundreds of aircraft and 50,000 flight hours. Whittle provided the counterargument with a balance of the reasons for the crashes, the fixes, and the results. Both authors mention the special operations version of the aircraft, but little more.
Now, the special operations version of the aircraft has a record, has begun its maturation with lessons on how it’s used, and has a pathway for further development with predictable results as the fleet grows to its full program.
The Aircraft and Self-deployability
Historically, two things define special operations air capability: an aircraft modified with special capability and crews selected from the conventional force for special training. The CV-22 is modified from the Marine version MV-22 by addition of terrain following, terrain avoidance radar, additional communications, added fuel tanks for range, and extra defensive systems for higher-threat air environments. At the end of 2011, about half of the CV-22s programmed to come to the U.S. Air Force and AFSOC had been delivered: five of seven for the CV-22 schoolhouse in the Training Command and 21 of 43 for AFSOC operational units. Two of AFSOC’s planned CV-22 squadrons, the 8th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) at Hurlburt Field, Fla., and the 20th SOS at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., have aircraft assigned to them and have both deployed operationally to exercises and to combat. It will be at least three more years before all of the aircraft are built and delivered to the four squadrons that are to possess and fly the aircraft.