Marine Corps Soon to Complete Probe of V-22 Fleet Readiness (UPDATED)

By Sandra I. Erwin
Japan Maritime Self Defense Force personnel refuel a U.S. Marine Corps MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni

Public Domain

The Marine Corps plans to wrap up later this year a sweeping review of the state of the V-22 fleet. This probe comes amid a widening awareness on Capitol Hill of substandard aviation readiness across the Marine Corps.

An “independent readiness review” of the V-22 Osprey got under way in October and should be complete by late summer or early fall, said Marine Corps spokeswoman Capt. Sarah Burns.

Overseen by the consulting firm LMI, the review is expected to “identify issues and causes for aircraft and maintenance-personnel readiness, and to recommend the best courses of action for the MV-22B community to achieve and maintain a T-2.0 readiness rate,” Burns told National Defense. T-2.0 is the optimal readiness rating for Marine Corps aircraft.

The V-22 Osprey tiltrotor entered service in 2007 after a turbulentdecade of development, safety problems and being on the brink of termination. In recent years, it has become a workhorse in the Marine Corps and hailed as a game changer in combat operations. 

“In the years ahead, the Osprey will remain the nation’s crisis response platform of choice in support of the ‘new normal,’” said the Marine Corps’ 2016 aviation plan.

Rising demand and wear and tear, meanwhile, have stressed the fleet and prompted the Marine Corps’ top leadership to take action. Officials have testified on Capitol Hill about eroding aviation readiness, and lawmakers have expressed alarm at news reports of Marine crews cannibalizing aircraft to keep squadrons running. The Marine Corps Times last year obtained a Defense Department inspector general report that found V-22 readiness rates fluctuated from 45 percent to 58 percent from fiscal years 2009 to 2011, much lower than the desired 82 percent. Marine officials have briefed lawmakers in hearings this year about efforts to increase those rates.

In recent months, most of the spotlight has been on the deteriorating state of Marine Corps and Navy Hornet tactical fighters, but the readiness of the V-22 fleet of about 280 aircraft also is troublesome, officials said.

“It’s a bathtub we’re in,” said Russell Howard, assistant deputy commandant for aviation sustainment.

The downward spiral is the result of several issues dating back a decade, Howard said last week at a logistics industry conference. “In some cases it’s money, in some cases engineering investment, reliability, supply chain management,” he said. "We’ve dug ourselves a hole. You don’t have enough airplanes so you overfly the ones that are up, so it becomes a death spiral. … We’re in a dire situation with Hornets … and the V-22 is very stressed,” Howard said.

The independent readiness review is the first step toward turning this around, he added. “It will be our roadmap to bring back the V-22.” The issues are similar for all Marine Corps fleets, Howard explained. “Maintainers are struggling to do their jobs. Depot capacity is a serious problem. Funding is always a problem.”

There are today 14 operational squadrons in the active fleet. The goal is to expand to 18 when the fleet reaches 360 aircraft. The Osprey is assembled at Bell Helicopter in Amarillo, Texas. The fuselage is made by Boeing in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania. 

To help cope with aircraft availability problems, the Naval Air Systems Command and Boeing more than a year ago built a V-22 “readiness operations center” in Ridley Park to monitor performance anomalies and predict maintenance and logistical issues across the fleet.

An LMI fact sheet says the V-22 readiness review is a “data driven” analysis that will suggest a path to future improvements. For this project, the company developed modeling and simulation software tools to “calculate fleet readiness and associated costs, allowing users to perform what-if analyses to see potential impacts of proposed program changes.” According to LMI, the review will provide “recommended courses of action to enable the military to make targeted program investments” and consider staffing options.

Similar reviews were conducted in the past for the Harrier attack jet and the Super Stallion helicopter fleets, said Marine Corps spokeswoman Burns. “So we anticipate the findings from the Osprey independent readiness review to echo the same results.”

Marine officials have championed expanding the role of the Osprey from simply a mobility platform for troops and cargo to serve as a “command and control” mobile network link over the battlefield.

These emerging missions and a slew of technology upgrades and advanced electronics planned for the Osprey will challenge the Corps to not only maintain the fleet but also protect aircraft from cyberattacks, experts said.

“The cyber stuff is what I worry about. How do we work that into the readiness equation?” asked Todd Probert, vice president of mission support and modernization at Raytheon. The company does the integration and testing of the Osprey avionics systems and software at a facility in Annapolis, Maryland, under a contract with the Naval Air Systems Command.

“We certify mission configuration for any new capability that’s deployed,” Probert said in an interview. The Osprey is an apt illustration of how the “sustainment” business is changing in military aviation. “The metal, the rotors, the engines, are important. But now more and more of these things are a flying avionics infrastructure,” he said. “Mission is becoming more about the avionics.”

The Marine Corps now has to consider the readiness of the software to ward off cyberattacks, he said. “As these systems become flying networks, what we have seen in the last couple of years is the cyber threat creeping into it,” said Probert. “The whole discipline of sustainment is really changing before our eyes.”

The V-22 was designed three decades ago, he noted, “when the broad philosophy was to trust. We’re coming into an environment of ‘trust no one.’” Consumer products like the iPhone have “more cyber resilience than military systems that were designed 30 years ago.”

Correction posted 4/27: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the location of the Osprey's assembly line.

Photo: Marine Corps

Topics: Aviation, Expeditionary Warfare, Logistics, Manufacturing

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