The Complex

Are the Marines Faking The Reliability Record of Their $54 Billion Superplane?

When Marines landed an MV-22B Osprey in an open field at the Dare County Bombing Range in North Carolina in June, it looked like a routine mission. But a gaffe was made: The Osprey sparked a grassfire and was left parked on it. Initially, Marine Corps officials said the damage was minor. Not quite: the fire burnt the fuselage, leaving it a $79.3 million total loss, according to data released by the Naval Safety Center. Parts were later recovered for use on other aircraft, but that Osprey never flew again, Foreign Policy has learned.

The incident is emblematic of the struggles the Marine Corps faces with the revolutionary tilt-rotor aircraft, which takes off like a helicopter but flies with the range and speed of an airplane. While the military continues to add new missions for the Osprey abroad and has interest in selling it to allies, the program remains dogged by its deadly history and bad news -- much of it self-inflicted. The upshot: While the aircraft has found a variety of success on the battlefield, Marine Corps officials are still defending its safety and reliability record from skeptics. And not without reason: A couple of the Osprey accidents that the Marines swore were no big deal turn out to be very big indeed.

The latest obstacle to the Osprey's acceptance is a Defense Department Inspector General report that raises concerns about the way in which Osprey units recorded readiness information about the aircraft. The report itself is classified, but the Pentagon released a summary of it Oct. 23. It states that squadron commanders improperly recorded aircraft information 167 of 200 times on aircraft inventory reports, inadequately prepared 112 of 907 works orders reviewed and submitted incomplete or inaccurate readiness reports in six squadrons that were reviewed. That practice, intentional or not, made it difficult for commanders to know if its MV-22 units were ready to perform, investigators found.

"As a result, the [mission capability rates] were unreliable, and senior DoD and Marine Corps officials could have deployed MV-22 squadrons that were not prepared for missions," the inspector general found.

Pentagon investigators attributed the mistakes to Osprey squadron commanders failing to adequately train personnel how to prepare aircraft inventory reports and readiness reports, and to verify the accuracy of the reports.

The readiness rates are not included in the unclassified summary, but have been reported in the past at between 65 and 80 percent. Commanders have acknowledged that is lower than desired, but Marine officials said the details in the IG report do not signify an attempt to make the Osprey look more reliable than really it is. Rather, they said, it is a failure to accurately catalog day-to-day operations.

"These mistakes are not cooking the books," Capt. Richard Ulsh, a Marine Corps spokesman at the Pentagon, told Foreign Policy. "They're not malicious, and they're not deliberate."

In a longer written response to questions, Ulsh defended the Osprey's record of service, including in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also has been used in several high-profile operations in other countries, including the daring 2011 rescue of an Air Force weapons system officer who parachuted into Libya as his F-15E Strike Eagle crashed.

"Naval Aviation relies on multiple data sources and reporting systems for readiness metrics," Ulsh said. "As such, the human interface can create inaccuracies through input error or improper procedures; minimizing such errors and ensuring procedural correctness is paramount and requires constant emphasis and oversight to ensure safety and operational readiness reporting that is useful to commanders.

"At the heart of readiness reporting is safety; operation effectiveness and safety are inseparable," Ulsh's statement said. "Over the course of the past six years, over 18 MV-22 deployments and contingency operations were executed on time with properly trained and equipped combat read Marines and mission capable aircraft."

Nevertheless, the report's release rubs salt in old wounds. Before the aircraft, built jointly by Bell Helicopter and Boeing, first deployed to Iraq in 2007, it was involved in three deadly crashes that killed a combined 30 people from 1991 to 2000. Eight Marines also faced criminal charges in 2001 for deliberately falsifying Osprey maintenance records.

More recently, two Marines were killed and two were critically wounded last year when an MV-22 crashed in Morocco during a training mission. A CV-22, an Air Force special operation version of the aircraft, also crashed in Afghanistan in April 2010, killing four service members. In both cases, the military cited pilot error as causes, rather than the Osprey's reliability.

In another recent incident, an Osprey made a "hard landing" near Creech Air Force Base in Nevada on Aug. 26. Marine officials said at the time that it caught fire after personnel exited the aircraft. That Osprey also was considered a full $79.3 million loss.

It was the Morocco crash, however, that created problems abroad for the U.S military. Protesters in Okinawa, Japan, used it as fodder to back their opinion that the Marine Corps should not fly it from bases there.

Even the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James Amos, ruffled feathers in Japan in August 2012 when he said the service had avoided any fatal Osprey accidents in the last 10 years. The remarks, made in Okinawa, were criticized as misleading and disrespectful. They came six months after the Morocco crash, which was widely reported in Japan. A Marine spokesman later told Stars and Stripes the commandant was referring to the 10-year period before the deaths in Morocco.

Amid all this, the Corps has continued to replace aging CH-46 helicopters with the Osprey, swapping them out squadron by squadron. It also adopted them as the centerpiece of a new crisis-response force it established this year to respond to emergencies involving U.S. interests in Africa. The speed and range of the aircraft, Marine officials say, make it possible for the U.S. to quickly react to crises that are hundreds of miles away.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Thursday that Israel would begin buying V-22s from the U.S. Japan's government also is reportedly interested in acquiring the aircraft.

Senior Airman Andy M. Kin/U.S. Air Force

National Security

Listen to This: Pentagon Wants Plutonium-Powered Radios by 2030

Networks of unmanned submarines. Subsonic cruise missiles with intercontinental range. Radios powered by decaying plutonium. Those are just a few of the technologies that the Pentagon's top scientific advisory panel wants to see in troops' hands by 2030.

Most of the technology already exists in some form, largely experimental or conceptual. Networked unmanned submarines is not a new idea - defense companies will happily sell you one of a dozen unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), the key is to make them bigger, more advanced, and digitally tie them together instead of sending them off one at a time on short-range missions. Likewise, cruise missiles already exist, but tripling their range would allow a ship in Norfolk harbor to strike targets off Alaska. Plutonium-powered electronics are occasionally used by NASA to power spacecraft on long-distance missions, but nobody's bothered to build them in quantity.

Moving troops faster is another crucial action where technology efforts are already ongoing. The Army is running the Future Vertical Lift program to find replacements for the aging traditional helicopters it uses now. Four contenders have stepped forward using more effective versions of tiltrotors like Bell's V-280 and pusher-propellers like Sikorsky's S-97. A Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program has begun to search for something brand-new, that can fly more efficiently than an aircraft and hover more efficiently than a helicopter, dramatically increasing range and speed. But even that's not enough for the Defense Science Board. In a recently-released report (.pdf), panelists say that they want to build on those concepts, doubling the range and speed of those still-notional projects.

The DSB report focuses on how the U.S. military can operate in a world where it is no longer the top dog, and even small states have access to satellite reconnaissance and other advanced technologies. The Board suggests investments in four broad categories: countering a peer competitor (a not-so-subtle reference to China), anticipating surprises, improving the effectiveness of existing forces, and ‘superiority through cost-imposing strategies.'

In many ways the report focuses on the same sort of technologies envisioned during the Bush administration's ‘revolution in military affairs' era, envisioning a light, responsive, highly networked force backed by standoff and remote weapons. Longstanding mobility and long-range strike initiatives are encouraged in the report, which backs up current investment in the U.S. Army's Future Vertical Lift and U.S. Air Force's Prompt Global Strike programs, then calls for them to take a few steps further.

Crucially, the report pointedly mentions affordability as a key goal, a shift away from the traditional approach of building small numbers of highly advanced units. "Quantity," the report says, paraphrasing Stalin, "has a quality all its own, especially when quantity can be coupled to enhanced operational flexibility." The theme of affordability and proportionality runs through the report, noting that an adversary should pay more to counter the weapon than the weapon itself costs to use.

The U.S. has traditionally packed each generation of weaponry with the latest in technology, making them overly expensive and consequently built in ever-smaller numbers. The result is a highly capable but often limited force; during the Iraq invasion, the U.S. destroyed Iraqi tanks with ease but never found a counter to groups of people with Ak-47s. Airstrikes in Afghanistan see the use of advanced, high-performance tactical fighter aircraft firing million-plus dollar missiles at adversaries with rusted assault weapons. A plethora of sophisticated, multi-million dollar electronic jamming systems against remotely-activated explosive devices were largely countered when bombmakers began using simple pressure plates.

The technologies sought by the DSB would be helpful in any conflict scenario, but the Board is clearly not anticipating an Iraq- or Afghanistan-style occupation. Technologies in at similar readiness levels more useful in those scenarios -- personal heads-up displays, universal translators, networked drones airborne for years at a time, to name a few -- are missing. Let's hope we don't end up in one of those occupation scenarios again.

U.S. Army