Marine Corps officials have raved about the MV-22 Osprey’s recent contributions to operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Haiti.
Commanders like the tilt-rotor aircraft’s advanced features and performance. The Osprey, however, is as high maintenance as it gets.
MV-22 maintenance squadrons in Iraq have faced reliability and maintainability challenges “stemming from an immature supply chain not always responsive to the demand for repair parts and aircraft and engine parts lasting only a fraction of their projected service life,” stated a Government Accountability Office report. The operations and support costs for the life cycle of the program, initially estimated at $75.41 billion, are expected to rise. As a leading indicator of potential increases, the GAO singled out the $11,000 cost per flying hour — more than double the target estimate.
“The Osprey’s Iraq experience demonstrated that the rise in cost is due in part to unreliable parts, the cost of some parts and required maintenance,” stated GAO’s Michael J. Sullivan, director for acquisition and sourcing management, last year before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “If there is no improvement, overall cost and maintenance hours may remain high.”
Because of the expense and labor associated with the large number of spare parts required to keep it in operations, Marine officials are now trying to come up with more efficient ways to maintain the fleet.
Classified as a medium-lift assault support aircraft, the V-22 carries 24 troops and can take off and land vertically like a helicopter but fly like an airplane. It has been operating in Iraq since late 2007 and is now flying combat missions in Afghanistan. A squadron en route to a war zone in January was diverted to Haiti to assist with the earthquake relief operations. Officials expect the demand for the aircraft to continue growing in the months ahead.
The Marine Corps’ fleet of combat-deployable Osprey aircraft in the last year has averaged an availability rate of 65 percent. The initial readiness level estimate for the aircraft had been projected at 82 percent. But since the tilt-rotor entered service three years ago, officials have discovered problems with the availability and performance of key parts.
“There are some select components that have not lived up to the reliability of the engineering predictions first conveyed,” said Lt. Col. Robert Freeland, aviation plans and medium-lift requirements officer at Marine Corps headquarters.
The GAO found that 13 components accounted for more than half the spare parts unavailable in Iraq. Of those, six lasted less than 10 percent of their expected service life.
Swash plate actuators, which help the aircraft’s rotor systems to turn and articulate, have topped the list of culprits. Those components were expected to last for 12,000 hours, but marines have discovered that in actual operations, they withstand only several hundred hours before they have to be replaced. Removing and repairing those parts account for almost half of the fleet’s repairable-parts cost, said Freeland.
Because the service designed its maintenance processes based upon the engineering predictions of component failures, it lacked adequate repair and production capability to keep pace with the demand for spare parts when failures occurred.
It took too many parts and cost too much money to fix broken aircraft, Freeland said. “That’s what got our attention,” he said. “That’s what we’re fixing.”
In the process of addressing that problem, marines also discovered a cuff seal that does not work properly on the swash plate actuator. That piece alone accounts for 84 percent of the items that have to be removed from the aircraft for repair or replacement.
Maintainers increased the repair capacity and asked the aircraft’s manufacturer, Boeing Co. and Bell Helicopter, to correct the problem. The Corps also has set up a testing check to monitor the status of those parts.
Marine officials have decided that repairing parts at the fleet readiness center in North Carolina will reduce costs and give them better control over the process. “There are more and more components that we can repair at that facility rather than sending them back to the original equipment manufacturer,” said Freeland. “That is going to take a big bite out of crime. One, we’re going to save a lot of money, two, we’re going to the keep components on the aircraft longer, which is really the goal: To keep the aircraft up for the war fighter to use.”
Despite the maintenance headaches, officials said that the MV-22s continue to meet commanders’ needs with the 65 percent average availability. That percentage is tallied based upon a “24-hour clock” metric based on the level of effort required to supply and maintain the aircraft on a continual basis. Marine air ground task force commanders measure availability with another metric, called an aviation management supply and readiness report, which captures a snapshot of the fleet at a specific time.
For example, during a span of 19 months of operations in Iraq, officials calculated an availability of 64.1 percent on the 24-hour clock. That same time period using the snapshot metric yielded a rate of 71.6 percent. “That tells you that if I’m looking across the fleet over the entire time, I’ve only got six out of 10 [Ospreys] up, but on a daily basis, I had a little better than seven out of 10 up,” explained Freeland. “You can meet your mission with seven out of 10.”
But as demand for the MV-22 grows, the Marine Corps wants to reduce the risk of aircraft not being available to fly missions, Freeland said. “With the proper application of the engineering resources and the funding resources, we know we’re going to get this thing licked,” he said.
Marines continue to defend the fledgling aircraft with a fierce passion. Though still haunted by its rocky 25-year development phase and tragic losses of life during testing, the MV-22 appears to be climbing out of the turbulence into calmer skies. Ensuring that the maintenance piece comes together will help solidify the trajectory, officials said.
Commanders have lauded the aircraft’s speed and reach in both combat and humanitarian operations.
“We’d find ourselves going from the border of Jordan going all the way back to Baghdad and even east of there in the same day, and with the same aircraft. That was something that they hadn’t seen before,” said Freeland, who flew the Osprey in Iraq from January 2008 to May 2008. He deployed on numerous missions that previously required a turboprop aircraft, such as a C-130, and some pre-positioned helicopters to reach out to greater distances. “Now we just send one or two MV-22s in one afternoon to do what previously required two type model series over two days,” he said.
The Corps is excited to have true medium-lift capability again — an aircraft that can transport troops and more supplies at greater distances, officials said. Commanders mostly rely upon the CH-53 heavy-lift helicopter to do the task. Having the MV-22 frees up the CH-53 to return to hauling supplies and equipment.
In Haiti, the Osprey was used to transport marines and assessment teams to outlying areas of the country that were too far and too difficult to reach in a timely manner by conventional means, said Maj. Gen. Cornell Wilson, commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces, South.
“The Ospreys were very critical in checking on some of the other areas that had not been checked on by the government of Haiti or the U.N. forces, or even by our own forces,” he said. The 12 aircraft, sailing aboard the USS Nassau that diverted while en route to a deployment to Afghanistan, also provided food, supplies and medical equipment to areas north of the capital city, Port-au-Prince. The northern part of the country suffered less damage from the magnitude 7.0 earthquake, but towns there required assistance because they were receiving an influx of displaced Haitians seeking shelter, food and safety.
The Osprey flew a total of 149 sorties and 137.2 flying hours in Haiti — the aircraft’s first humanitarian aid and disaster relief operation. In conjunction with the MV-22, Marines flew the UH-1Ns for aerial reconnaissance and also employed the CH-53E and MH-60 to fly assessment teams. Together, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit aircraft flew a grand total of 355 sorties and 406.5 hours.
“We had a great reach” with the Osprey, said Wilson. “It’s certainly proving itself to be a capable aircraft.”
After spending two weeks assisting in the relief operations, the Ospreys departed with the Nassau amphibious ready group to resume transiting across the Atlantic Ocean to support U.S. European and Central commands.
The GAO report raised concerns about how the aircraft’s mission capability rate might be affected by the harsher climates and high altitudes in Afghanistan. Failures with the ice protection system, in particular, could jeopardize missions, the report stated.
Reliability of the ice protection system has been problematic, but when it has been used, it performed well, said Col. Kevin S. Vest, commanding officer of Marine Aircraft Group 40, deployed to Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. The Osprey squadron there recently received new rotor blades with heater blankets along with updated hardware for the rotor system. Officials hope those items will improve the system reliability. Vest also pointed out that no other rotorcraft in theater has an ice protection system.
The MV-22 has been involved in a number of assault and support missions in Afghanistan, including an early morning raid that reportedly trapped a number of Taliban fighters in a “kill box” formed by Osprey-deployed marines and AH-1 Cobra helicopters. The aircraft have inserted Special Forces units and Afghan army units in nighttime operations and have ferried injured and wounded Afghan citizens to field hospitals.
“The Ospreys are invaluable and welcome assets in Afghanistan,” said Maj. Carl Redding, a spokesperson for the Marine Corps. Since arriving in early November, the aircraft have flown more than 11,000 hours in 650 sorties and counting. They have transported more than 9,000 passengers and more than 350,000 pounds of cargo. Their mission capable rating has been seven out of 10 each day, a comparable rate to their performance in Iraq.
“The MV-22 is the medium-lift assault craft of choice,” said Redding.
Freeland said marines are applying the lessons that they learned in Iraq about how to employ the aircraft. They understand its capabilities and are leveraging them. More importantly, they are treating the tilt-rotor like any other aircraft in the Marine Corps inventory. “That’s very, very good to see,” said Freeland. “We’re very pleased to see the normalization of the MV-22.”