This September, the controversial Osprey will reach the five-year mark in its operational deployment history. In September 2007, the Osprey was deployed for the first time to Iraq. The plane has not only done well, but in five short years has demonstrated its capability to have not only a significant impact on combat but to reshape thinking about concepts of operations.
In this piece, I would like to reflect back on these five years, not just to grasp lessons learned, but glimmers of where the plane, and the Navy-Marine Corps team might be able to move into the future. The story of the evolution of the con-ops surrounding the plane provides a solid foundation for innovation and transformation of concepts of operations, if boldness overcomes timidity.
Each year for the past four years, I have driven down to New River Air Station and interviewed Osprey pilots and logisticians becoming known as the Osprey Nation, who form the nucleus of the future of the Marines and of power projection.
We can start with the decision of Marine leaders to deploy the plane to Iraq. This deployment was itself part of the “testing” process. What is often overlooked is that testing is really done by pilots and maintainers in combat, not by technicians in white coats or statisticians at the GAO. There was clear concern expressed to me by Marine aviators that the deployment to Iraq would prove challenging, and its was. But it was also evidence of the role of leadership in making the hard decisions to role out needed capabilities and let the users define the direction of a program, not the program managers.
The deployments have been on land – Iraq and Afghanistan – as well as at sea. The plane and its crews have been tested in combat and in real world operations. What we have seen is that the plane started with training wheels on its deployments, and those wheels not only have been thrown off, but, as time in combat has gone up, the Marines as well as the Combatant Commanders have begun to realize what a transformational platform can do when connected with other capabilities and assets.
The plane started operations in Iraq built around a famous diagram showing the speed and range of the aircraft in covering Iraq. It was the only “helicopter” that could completely cover Iraqi territory. In this role, the testing of support as well as operational capabilities was somewhat limited as Marines tested out capabilities and dealt with operational challenges. The plane was largely used for passenger and cargo transport in support operations. It was used for assault operations from the beginning but over time, the role would expand as the support structure matured, readiness rates grew and airplane availability become increasingly robust.
From the beginning the aircraft impressed and foreshadowed later developments.
As General Walsh, now deputy commander of Marine combat development, noted in a 2009 interview the remaining forces had to cover more ground and to provide protection at greater distance. Enter the Osprey, which did not require FOBs to provide lift and support to forward deployed forces.
Indeed, General Walsh underscored that, as the US forces withdraw, there was demand for more — not less — airpower. This happened on several levels.
On one level, this was due to the drawdown of the number of combat posts, which supported operations in Iraq. American forces continued to work with Iraqi forces but now had to commute from distance to do their work, rather than being in close proximity to combat posts. This meant that airpower had to provide regular support to the transit of US forces working with Iraqis. “At one point we had 140 combat posts; while we were there we went from 36 to 4 combat posts; so air was relied on more frequently for convoy protection. As we drew down combat posts and associated capabilities, air was relied on for capabilities which had earlier been largely provided by the ground forces,” Walsh said. On another level, this was due to the need to protect the convoys moving equipment out of Iraq.
In addition, the Marines were increasingly asked to help Iraqis using the Ospreys. Iraq was the beginning and a conscious raiser for troops and commanders. Next on the agenda was the beginning of deployments to Afghanistan, which of course continue. The Afghan phase of deployments has seen the aircraft and its operator’s transition to many more assault combat operations over time, to the point where the latest Osprey squadron just came back from Afghanistan with record-setting assault operations for the Osprey.
One useful metric to measure the transition fro transportation to combat operations can be seen in the number of named operations in which the Osprey squadron has participated in Afghanistan, the air assault operations in support of U.S. and coalition forces. The latest squadron, VMM-365 (the Blue Knights) conducted nearly 200 named operations, a 20-fold increase over the squadron which preceded it in Afghanistan.
In the words of the head of 2nd Marine Air Wing – Maj. Gen. Glen Walters — on his return from Afghanistan:
“The Ospreys had their normal fair share of general support, resupplies, etc. But we started accelerating their use as my time there went on, and used them for both the conventional and Special Forces operations.
The beauty of the speed of the Osprey is that you can get the Special Operations forces where they need to be and to augment what the conventional forces were doing and thereby take pressure off of the conventional forces. And with the SAME assets, you could make multiple trips or make multiple hits, which allowed us to shape what the Taliban was trying to do.
“The Taliban has a very rudimentary but effective early warning system for counter-air. They spaced guys around their area of interest, their headquarters, etc. Then they would call in on cell or satellite phones to chat or track. It was very easy for them to track. They had names for our aircraft, like the CH-53s, which they called ‘Fat Cows.’
“But they did not talk much about the Osprey because they were so quick and lethal. And because of its speed and range, you did not have to come on the axis that would expect. You could go around, or behind them and then zip in. We also started expanding our night operations with the Osprey. We rigged up a V-22 for battlefield illumination.
“A lot of these mission sets were never designed into the V-22 but you put it into the field and configure it to do the various missions required. And we have new software for the Ospreys in Afghanistan where you can pick your approach, angle, approach speed and let the aircraft do it all. That is a huge safety gain.”
Afghanistan operations as well as at-sea operations led to a better understanding of the Osprey’s impact on concepts of operations. The plane was clearly not a rotorcraft; it was not a replacement for the CH-46. But it took awhile for the concepts of operations to change and commanders to understand fully that they did not have to operate in a constricted operational box of a couple of hundred miles for the ARG-MEU and could instead think about a 1,000-plus mile operational area.
Then, enter Libya. The Osprey got linked to the Gator navy and opened up a whole new capability. The Gator navy began its transition from Greyhound Bus to a strike force capability.
The ability to seamlessly link support services ashore with the deployed fleet via the Osprey allowed the Harriers aboard the USS Kearsarge to increase their sortie rates dramatically. By providing a whole new speed and range enablement of the strike fleet aboard a large deck amphibious ship, the future was being redefined by the Osprey.
And now fast forward to Bold Alligator 2012, the largest amphibious exercise held since 1996. A major difference from 1996 to 2012 was the appearance of the Osprey. Indeed, the existence, deployment and appearance of the Osprey changed the military’s entire approach to thinking about amphibious assault. While observers stood on the beach waiting for the assault, Ospreys were already part of taking an “enemy” fort deep in the terrain. On top of that, one of the Ospreys deployed from a supply ship!
Moving forward, we can see glimpses of the future, which could lead to a cascading of change in operational approaches and capabilities if leadership will allow.
I would mention three prospects for change.
First will be the impact of the “self-deployment” capability of the Osprey. The Osprey can fly directly to the area of operation with tanking. Try doing that with a helicopter. In fact, self-deployment is now being used in bringing Ospreys back from Afghanistan and used regularly in exercises.
Self-deployment means that there is a possibility of rethinking how the seabase can work with land-based air. Ospreys can move with the fleet, but also can be reinforced by land-based Ospreys that can augment overall air assault capabilities available to the fleet or combatant commander.
Second is the impact of a new system like the Osprey on avoiding or removing threats. The Osprey has avoided strikes by manpads, RPGs and other weapons fire which would have taken down CH-46s. The Ospreys have proven robust in combat, sustaining ground fire and using their digital management systems and redundant systems to self-correct and, like the Timex watch ad, keep on ticking.
Third, the coming of the F-35B to the fleet coupled with the Osprey is a significant game changer. It may lead to what the commanding officer of VMM 266 (and the Osprey leader in Operation Odyssey Dawn), Lt. Col. Boniface, called a “tsunami of change.”
“I sort of think of it like a game of chess. I think of a traditional or legacy ARG-MEU as being able to move a pawn one space at a time towards the enemy. If you have ever played chess it sometimes take a while to engage your opponent. We now have the ability to move a knight, bishop, or rook off of this same chess board and attack 180 degrees towards the rear of our enemy. We can go directly after the king. Yes, it’s not really fair, but I like that fact. The speed, range, and don’t forget the reliability of the MV-22 allows me to do this,” Boniface said.
Robbin Laird, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is an international defense consultant, owner of the Second Line of Defense website, and a former National Security Council staffer.