Navy to Consider New Ways to Shuttle Passengers, Supplies to Aircraft Carriers

By Sandra I. Erwin

The Navy will decide over the next two years how it will modernize its fleet of 35 cargo planes that move passengers and supplies from bases on land to big-deck aircraft carriers at sea. The nearly five-decade-old transports, called C-2A Greyhounds, are still in working order, but a portion of the fleet must be either refurbished or replaced before its lifespan ends in 2028.

The Naval Air Systems Command’s carrier onboard delivery advanced development program office plans to solicit industry bids in 2014. The competition is likely to become a showdown between incumbent Northrop Grumman Corp., the original manufacturer of the C-2, and Bell-Boeing, maker of the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft.

Northrop Grumman will propose to rebuild existing aircraft and extend their service life by nearly two decades. Bell-Boeing will offer the V-22, a hybrid that combines the functions of a helicopter and a turboprop aircraft. The company has the backing of the Marine Corps, a champion of the Osprey that has made no secret of its desire to see a larger V-22 presence across naval forces.

The Navy insists that more than just two options will be considered for the modernization of the C-2 fleet. An analysis of potential choices was completed in 2012. The study looked at multiple alternatives, said Naval Air Systems Command spokeswoman Paula A. Paige. Among them: A service life extension program for the C-2A; new construction of improved C-2s, V-22s and improved V-22s; a common support aircraft (C-XX) concept, and a “clean sheet” aircraft design.

Bidders were asked to submit white papers in June. A solicitation for contractor proposals will go out in late 2014, with a due date 90 to 120 days later, Paige said. A contract award is now planned for fiscal year 2016.

The contents of the Navy’s analysis-of-alternatives study have not been released, but industry insiders with knowledge of the findings said the V-22 option scored more favorable reviews than anyone had expected. They surmise that Northrop’s and Bell-Boeing’s bids will be fairly evenly matched, and that the battle for the Navy’s contract will be contentious.

The Navy declined to comment on specific contractor proposals. “It is too early in the process to speculate on details of a competition and potential alternatives leading into a competitive procurement,” Paige told National Defense.

Bell-Boeing officials said they have not seen the study, but are optimistic about their chances against industry powerhouse Northrop Grumman. The company — a partnership of Bell Helicopter in Fort Worth, Texas, and Boeing Rotorcraft Systems in Ridley Park, Pa. — regards the C-2A modernization program as pivotal to its future, as U.S. military orders for the V-22 soon will plateau.

The V-22 first flew in 1989. The Marine Corps began testing it in 2000 and fielded it in 2007, despite a series of crashes that cast doubts on the safety of the aircraft. It is currently in service with both the Marine Corps and Air Force Special Operations Command. The Osprey is now part of the presidential helicopter fleet and in recent years was deployed in both combat and rescue operations over Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

Northrop Grumman, for its part, believes it has the upper hand because rebuilding existing aircraft will cost the Navy far less than buying $67 million apiece Ospreys.

The Greyhounds have been workhorses since they started flying in 1964, and are responsible for ferrying passengers and supplies from shore bases to carrier decks. The fleet of 35 aircraft is showing its age, and the Navy will need to start a modernization program before the airframes begin to experience fatigue-related problems. Northrop Grumman has proposed to update the airframes with new components that would be common with the Navy’s E-2D Advanced Hawkeye radar plane, which the company expects to begin building in 2015.

Remanufacturing C-2 aircraft with components that already are being bought for the E-2D will reduce costs for the Navy, said Steve Squires, director of C-2 Greyhound programs at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. “We want to provide the Navy with the lowest cost alternative,” he said in an interview.

“We will be remanufacturing the existing fuselage and replacing the necessary components with parts of the in-production E-2D Hawkeye,” he said. A modernized C-2 would include the cockpit, wings, engines and digital avionics of the E-2D.

The Hawkeye recently completed fleet tests, and Northrop is negotiating terms for a multiyear contract for 32 aircraft. It is projected to join the fleet by fall 2015.

Squires said minor modifications would extend the service life of the C-2 fleet by 20 years, or 7,500 flying hours. This calculation is based on the Navy’s average use of the C-2 of 375 hours per year.

Refurbishing naval aircraft can be a risky proposition because airframes take a beating at sea and damage might not be noticeable until the aircraft is disassembled. Squires said the C-2 fleet is not expected to suffer fatigue problems until the 2020s. “There is a lot of capability in this airplane,” he said.

The C-2 program is a reminder of the risks involved in remanufacturing older airframes. The Navy unsuccessfully sought in the late 1990s to extend the life of outdated P-3 Orion maritime surveillance aircraft, some of which had been flying since 1962. The Navy in 1994 awarded a contract to Raytheon Co. to remanufacture 32 P-3s. The work involved replacing, upgrading, and refurbishing the fuselage, wings, spar caps, flaps and empennage, installing new control cables and portions of the avionics and electrical wiring. Raytheon found that there was more corrosion-related damage than had been expected. Because it was a fixed-price contract, Raytheon concluded that the additional damage could not be repaired for the previously established cost. So the Navy and the company agreed to end the contract after only 13 aircraft.

Bell-Boeing officials hope that past troubles with remanufacturing programs will persuade the Navy to buy new airplanes, even if that requires a larger upfront expenditure. “They are going to put a 40-year-old fuselage underneath all this new equipment. … Invariably all this ends up costing more than budgeted,” said Ken Karika, manager of military business development at Bell Helicopter, and a former Marine Corps V-22 pilot. The Osprey would cost more money upfront than the remanufacturing option, but the Navy would save in the long run, he said.

Another consideration for the Navy is how the Osprey would blend with carrier flight operations. The V-22 would be a new addition to the carrier deck, although the aircraft has been flying off large-deck amphibious assault ships.

The Navy agreed to test the Osprey’s ability to land on a carrier and deliver cargo, and to conduct COD [carrier onboard delivery] missions during breaks in combat jet launch and recovery cycles.

Brian Scolpino, program manager at the COD advanced development program office, said V-22s have flown off flight decks on five separate aircraft carriers. As part of “risk reduction efforts,” he said in a statement, the V-22 program completed in April the “crawl” and “walk” phases of a test known as a military utility assessment. The third phase, which he called “run,” was scheduled for mid-June.

These utility assessments, Scolpino cautioned, should not be characterized as “trials,” as their only purpose was to check how the V-22 integrates with aircraft carrier operations.

Karika said Bell-Boeing officials, at press time, had not been informed of the results of the military utility assessment.

He said the company is optimistic about the V-22’s prospects in a future competition. The Osprey, said Karika, beats the Greyhound in cargo capacity. Its maximum internal capacity is 20,000 pounds, compared to 10,000 pounds in the C-2. The expected service life of a V-22 airframe is 10,000 flying hours.

Karika acknowledged that transitioning from the C-2 to the V-22 for COD duties might appear simple in theory but would require adjustments in how logistics missions are planned and executed.

“We’ve been doing COD missions the same way since the 1960s,” he said. The C-2 flies to the carrier and, after it lands on deck, crews distribute the cargo to multiple helicopters that ferry passengers or deliver supplies to the rest of the strike group.

With the V-22, deliveries could be made point-to-point because it can land and take off vertically, like a helicopter, while the C-2 requires a runway. “This approach would save time and fuel,” Karika said. Ospreys also would be able to conduct rescue missions or medical evacuations from any surface ship or submarine in the strike group, he said. “The carrier becomes more relevant with Ospreys.”

Navy officials have expressed concerns about the V-22 downwash when it lands. “Everyone asks [about the downwash],” Karika said. “It’s really a matter of understanding the V-22. It is different from a helicopter,” he said. “Downwash are narrow areas. If you know them, you avoid them.”

Karika said the Navy also might consider using the Osprey as a refueling tanker for Hornet jets during recovery and launch operations. Bell-Boeing will be testing the Osprey in refueling missions later this summer, he said.

The pressure on Bell-Boeing to win the C-2 competition will grow if sales to the Marine Corps and the Air Force begin to taper off. “We have a hot production line,” said Karika. About 230 aircraft have been delivered to the Marine Corps and Air Force Special Operations Command, and 60 more are under contract. Company officials expect future orders from foreign customers such as Israel and possibly other Middle Eastern nations.

Topics: Aviation, Transport Aircraft, Logistics, Procurement

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