With Lt. Col. David Weinstein, McKinney did it a dozen times on March 20 – six landings in daylight, six at night. After their first two touchdowns, sailors perched in the carrier’s superstructure to watch the helicopter-airplane hybrid Osprey’s first-ever carrier qualification landings, conducted off the coast of North Carolina, started giving the pilots “a lot of thumbs-up.”
Marine leaders hope the Osprey’s “carrier quals,” scheduled to continue in May and June, will help the Osprey get a thumbs-up as well from the admirals who run the Navy when they pick a replacement aircraft for their aging C-2A Greyhounds, the twin-engine turboprops that haul cargo, mail and passengers between carriers and the shore — a mission called COD for “carrier on-board delivery.” The first prototypes flew in 1964.
The C-2 will soon be “an obsolete carrier on-board delivery platform,” said Marine Col. Greg Masiello, who as V-22 program manager for the Naval Air Systems Command is openly advocating the Osprey as a replacement. “I might be considered biased, but it’s an ideal platform for aerial resupply for the Navy.”
A Navy purchase of Ospreys is hardly a new idea. In the 1980s, when Navy Secretary John Lehman fathered the V-22 program, the Navy was supposed to buy as many as 380 for search and rescue and for anti-submarine warfare. That plan evaporated after Lehman left office in 1987, but since the 1990s, the Navy has — at least nominally — had a plan to buy 48 Ospreys. The V-22 first went into service with the Marines in 2007, though, and hasn’t been available in the past when the Navy had a suitable requirement to fill.
The Marines, along with Osprey makers Bell Helicopter, Textron, and Boeing, think buying 30 or so V-22s to replace the C-2A would be a fine place for the Navy to start fulfilling its plan to buy 48. Qualifying the Osprey to land on big deck carriers and other types of ships is partly an effort to help the sea service see how easy it could be to integrate the tiltrotor into their operations. The only other time an Osprey is known to have landed on a big deck carrier was when a Marine Corps V-22 carried Osama bin Laden‘s body from Afghanistan to the USS Carl Vinson last year for burial at sea.
“The official position is, the Marine Corps needs to get the V-22 qualified on all the decks they can in the U.S. and foreign navies so they can do missions,” an industry source said. “The Marines also want to sell V-22s, and they want to push the Navy into buying V-22s.”
Pentagon purchasing czar Frank Kendall confirmed in a March 1 letter to Congress that the Defense Department plans to buy 98 more V-22s – 91 MV-22s for the Marines and seven CV-22s for the Air Force – under a five-year fixed-price contract that would begin in fiscal 2013 and conclude in fiscal 2017. That second multiyear contract leaves another 24 Ospreys to be bought for the Marines and Air Force.
Kendall certified in his letter that the government will pay at least $852 million less for those next 98 Ospreys – a savings of at least 10 percent – compared to what they would have cost under a series of annual contracts. A Navy purchase would be expected to lower the cost of the remaining 24 V-22s the Marines and Air Force want and bolster the logistics chain for both as well.
The Navy’s official target date for replacing its C-2As is 2026, but realistically it will have to act sooner given its COD fleet’s age. The service recently finished an Analysis of Alternatives that included comparing the V-22 to other options, such as remanufacturing its 35 C-2As to extend their service life or buying new ones from Northrop Grumman Corp., but the results of the AoA haven’t been released.
To help make the case for the Osprey, Masiello last October added to his staff Cdr. Sean McDermott, a C-2A pilot who previously commanded the Navy’s East Coast COD squadron.
Masiello argues that the V-22, though at about $67 million (for the Marine Corps version) more expensive than a C-2A, would provide the Navy with a multirole aircraft whose speed, range, and ability to land like a helicopter would greatly expand a carrier group’s flexibility.
“We’ve seen that point proven out now, we believe, on multiple MEU deployments,” he said. Commanders of Marine Expeditionary Units that deploy aboard three-ship Amphibious Ready Groups report that the Osprey’s ability to take off and land like a helicopter but fly with the speed and range of a fixed-wing turboprop has greatly expanded the ARG/MEU’s flexibility, allowing ships to operate at greater distances from each other and foreign coasts.
Using Ospreys to deliver supplies, Masiello said, the Navy could abandon or modify its “hub and spoke” system of at-sea resupply of carrier strike groups, in which C-2As deliver cargo to the carrier and Sikorsky Aircraft H-60 helicopters take supplies from the carrier to other ships. As the Marines and Air Force have shown, the Osprey can also do a range of other missions, from search and rescue to medical evacuation to carrying special operations troops on raids. The only ship a C-2A can land on is an aircraft carrier with an arresting wire for the plane’s tail hook to catch and a catapult to give the Greyhound a high-velocity shove into the air at takeoff.
Given the extraordinary pressure to cut defense spending these days and the large number of higher priorities, however, replacing the C-2A with anything is viewed by those following the issue as a low priority for most Navy leaders. “They want to put this off as long as they can,” the industry official said.
Masiello, though, thinks the day isn’t far off when V-22s will be a regular sight on aircraft carrier decks. “I’m convinced it’s not a question of if,” he said, “it’s a question of when.”