The Right Way To Respond To The ‘Too-Many-Air-Forces’ Criticism: Keep The V-22 Osprey Multi-Service And Multi-Mission

A hardy perennial in the debate over the "roles and missions" of the various military services is the argument that the Pentagon has four air forces — three too many for some critics. In fact, the nation is, on balance, well served by the flexibility and optimization made possible by having dedicated air arms in each service.

The Defense Department lays itself open unnecessarily to criticism of duplication in its airborne elements to the extent it fails to exploit opportunities for "joint" or multi-service approaches to procurement of aircraft and other weapon systems. What is more, pursuant to the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, the Pentagon actually has a statutory obligation to maximize such opportunities. In addition, its own regulations (e.g., DOD Reg. 5000.2) make clear that Defense is required to give priority to joint weapons development and acquisition strategies.

The reason for such requirements is not hard to ascertain. After all, there are obvious operational and logistical advantages to using a standardized system to meet multiple-mission and -service needs. There are also real long-term savings to be achieved, for example, by developing a single airframe that can perform numerous validated missions — thereby avoiding redundant, multi-billion dollar development programs. This reduces the number of different types of aircraft operated by the Defense Department and their associated life-cycle costs.

In short, it would be inconsistent with the spirit — if not the letter — of the law, at variance with departmental regulations and fiscally irresponsible were the military and its civilian leadership to miss an opportunity to utilize such a joint approach in order to procure common aircraft (or those derived from a common airframe) to perform multiple-service missions.

The V-22: A Test Case for Joint Programs

A litmus test in this regard is the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor system. From its inception as the JVX program under then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in 1981, all four services were involved in setting the specifications for and designing the Osprey. A joint service technical assessment the following year concluded that only tiltrotor technology — with its ability to take-off and land like a helicopter but fly at conventional aircraft speeds — offered the flexibility and versatility required to meet the various "medium-lift" missions of all the services. The Osprey development effort was thus instituted as a model joint program.

Consequently, the requirements for the V-22 were established so as to ensure that the V-22 had the inherent capability to perform not only the Marines’ assault lift mission but also over 30 separate functions for the Navy, Army and Air Force. These include: special operations, search and rescue, logistic support, medevac, anti-submarine warfare, etc. Such commonality served both to minimize the costs to the government associated with meeting these various service needs and to help keep the per-unit price of the V-22 affordable.

Building multi-purpose capability into a single aircraft inevitably means that such an aircraft will be more costly than an alternative designed to meet just one service’s requirement. Superficial cost comparisons can become even more skewed if that one service requirement is permitted to be revised so as to make it less exacting after the design that meets the more demanding specification has been set for the multi-purpose airplane.

In short, by manipulating the underlying assumptions, a cost-effectiveness comparison between the V-22 and less capable aircraft could lead one to conclude that the taxpayer would be best served by purchasing the lesser system when nothing could be farther from the truth.(1) Inevitably, the overall cost to the government of performing a variety of defense tasks — as opposed to the costs to a single military service of fulfilling a single mission requirement (e.g., Marine medium lift) — is lower if a common airframe is used to fulfill the array of missions for which it is suited.

The Medium-Lift Replacement Scam

Unfortunately, shortly before it left office, the Bush Administration adopted just such an analytic flim-flam in a last, desperate bid to prevail in a four-year fight with Congress over termination of the V-22. The stage for this maneuver was set in July 1992 when the Comptroller General of the United States ordered the Defense Department to release $790 million that had been appropriated for the purpose of completing development of the Osprey over then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney’s strenuous opposition.

Ordinarily, such a directive would have produced the intended congressional result — a prompt decision to begin production of the V-22 and its entry into service with the Marine Corps and other service users. Instead, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) redoubled its efforts to sabotage the Osprey and prevent such a outcome.

The stratagem OSD adopted to achieve these ends was as cynical as it was inconsistent with standing DOD policy, regulations and relevant statutes: Having long maintained that the V-22 was "unaffordable," everything possible would be done to make it so: first, by eliminating joint mission requirements, second, by arbitrarily directing the Marines to downgrade their specifications for "medium-lift" aircraft; and third, by postponing and otherwise dragging out procurement decisions.

In July 1992, OSD effectively rejected the requirements established by the commands responsible for Special Operations Forces (SOF) and Navy Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) for an aircraft with the high speed and long range capabilities critical to their respective missions. In so doing, the joint V-22 program was stripped of its multi-service sponsors and their demanding requirements — which only the Osprey could satisfy.

What is more, the Office of the Secretary of Defense obliged the Marines last August to subordinate military needs to political whim. This was accomplished by ordering the Corps’ requirements so as to permit a helicopter to compete for the single mission of a medium-lift replacement (MLR) for the Marines’ aging CH-46 fleet. Pending completion of that competition several years from now, there would be no near-term decision to procure the Osprey.(2)

Real Costs Associated with the Cheney MLR Approach

If the Cheney-designed stratagem for killing the V-22 is allowed by the Aspin Defense Department to go forward, the following undesirable results are predictable:

  • The deployment of a replacement for the CH-46 will be postponed conservatively for five years — probably necessitating an expensive service-life extension program for the CH-46s.

  • The aircraft selected to perform the Marine medium-lift mission will be slower than the V-22, with less range and survivability — and requiring more troops to maintain and operate — all of which translates into degraded performance of that mission. Worse yet, it will mean increased loss of American lives in combat.

  • The aircraft procured for the Marine MLR will be inadequate for the joint services missions the V-22 was designed to perform, thereby ensuring that expensive new development and acquisition programs will have to be undertaken to meet these other requirements.


The inadvisability of the OSD-dictated approach was recently summarized well by Lieutenant General Duane Wills, the Marine Corps general in charge of aviation: "The V-22 when compared to program alternatives: requires 1,150 to 3,000 fewer Marines, is more combat survivable, is the only aircraft which meets both the Marine Corps and Joint Service Operational Requirements and accomplishes the Marine Corps mission with the fewest number of aircraft. Opting to procure a less capable medium-lift replacement that is more manpower intensive, and which is projected to have greater life cycle costs, is neither operationally or fiscally responsible."

What Will Aspin Do?

Gen. Wills’ concern about operational and fiscal irresponsibility takes on added weight if other services and missions are obliged to continue to work within the Bush Administration MLR construct. Regrettably — despite a number of very positive public statements about the V-22 from the Clinton team issued in the course of the presidential campaign and during its first months in office — Secretary Aspin and his staff currently seem disposed (either by design or by inaction) to permit the MLR approach they inherited to continue.

An opportunity looms, however, to establish a different procurement strategy — one that is consistent with President Clinton’s stated support for the V-22; that preserves the considerable opportunity for commercialization of this tiltrotor technology and the attendant retunr on investment to the taxpayer that would flow from it; and that conforms to statutory and regulatory requirements for "jointness" wherever possible in DOD procurements. Next month, the Joint Requirements Operational Council (or JROC which chaired by the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. David Jeremiah) will meet to consider how best to correct what has been called the "number one deficiency in special operations today…[the] ability to conduct long-range infiltration-exfiltration of special operations forces."

If the JROC is free to make a decision that meetes the stated needs of the Special Operations Command — and that makes best use of limited resources while maximizing the benefit to the national interest — it will respond favorably to that organization’s Commander-in-Chief, Gen. Carl Stiner. On 30 March, Gen. Stiner advised Members of Congress that his goal for the upcoming JROC meeting is to: "restor[e] the V-22 as a joint program which will have the capability of satisfying the Navy’s combat search and rescue requirements, the Marine Corps’ medium lift requirements and our Special Operations Forces requirements for speed and range."

The Bottom Line

Secretary Aspin has stressed the importance of a defence budget which "cuts Cold War forces and begins to buy the new capabilities we need to meet the new dangers we face…." By restoring the joint basis of the Osprey program, and ending once-and-for all the obstruction to that program left in place by Secretary Cheney’s team, the Osprey can once again become a model of inter-service cooperation in the development of requirements and in the definition and selection of a common design that could optimally meet them. Particularly in a period of budgetary austerity, there is no alternative to such an approach if the maximum benefit is to be obtained from each defense dollar spent.

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1. It goes without saying that cost comparisons can be even more misleading when they contrast relatively firm estimates of production prices for an aircraft like the V-22 — that is in an advanced state of development — with "paper" airplanes for which no solid figures are available.

2. It should be borne in mind that the four-year delay in a procurement decision on the V-22 caused by the Bush Administration’s opposition to the program has already delayed the system’s Initial Operational Capability (IOC) — originally scheduled for 1991 — by some eight years.

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