CV-22 Ospreys Get Extra Upgrades for Special Operations (UPDATED)

By Allyson Versprille

Air Force Special Operations Command plans to integrate several new technologies into its fleet of CV-22 Ospreys by the early 2020s that will enhance the aircraft’s performance, an AFSOC official told National Defense. 

The V-22 is an important platform that fills a unique niche, said Col. Steven Breeze, the deputy director of operations at AFSOC. It “is the first aircraft that I know of that has a similar speed to the C-130 but can land vertically,” he said. “There’s no other aircraft that can do that with the speed of the C-130 and the range of the C-130.”

With a cruising speed of 241 knots — a max of about 270 knots — and a combat radius of 500 nautical miles with one internal auxiliary fuel tank, it enables special ops forces to carry out missions in one period of darkness, leading to fewer complications and greater operational success, Breeze said.

He pointed to the failure of Desert One in 1980, an attempt to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran, as a reason why having that ability is so important.

“We need a vertical lift platform that has the speed and the range in order to execute a mission such as Desert One, and the V-22 fits that profile perfectly,” he said. “We could have done that entire mission with V-22s and pulled it off in one period of darkness.”

Because the platform is so crucial for special operations, AFSOC is looking at ways it can improve the aircraft’s performance.  
To achieve that goal, the command has near-term plans to add both a new radar and an engine filtration system to the CV-22. AFSOC is also considering putting more weapons on the tilt-rotor platform. 

The modern radar will replace the aircraft’s existing terrain following and avoidance system. Such radars enable pilots to fly as low as 100 feet to the ground in challenging conditions — at night, in adverse weather and in high-threat environments — while lowering the probability of detection by enemy forces. “In other words, the pilots don’t even have to look outside to fly at low altitudes and it keeps them safe,” Breeze said.

The current system on the CV-22 is Raytheon’s APQ-186. The command plans to replace the old radar with the company’s APQ-187, also known as Silent Knight. The new system will include advances in terrain following and avoidance capabilities, and will be lighter and require less power than its predecessors.

AFSOC will benefit from using Raytheon’s radar because it has similar form factors as the old one — which will minimize changes to the airframe — and because of the experience that the company brings to the table, said Rick Lemaster, director of V-22 tilt-rotor global sales and marketing for vertical lift programs at Boeing. “Because Raytheon builds the current radar as well as this future radar, they have quite a bit of knowledge on what that current installation looks like and what they would have to do.”

AFSOC anticipates that the Silent Knight retrofit kits will be available in the third quarter of fiscal year 2021. The command is looking to fit one to two CV-22s with the new system in fiscal year 2021. From fiscal years 2022 through 2027, it plans to retrofit eight to nine aircraft per year. However, that schedule is dependent on aircraft availability and the length of the other retrofits. Overall, the command hopes to have the new radar on all 51 CV-22s by fiscal year 2027.

Silent Knight has already been tested and integrated on Army special operations helicopters — the MH-47G Chinook and the MH-60M Black Hawk, Lemaster noted.

“They’re in production and they’re putting those upgraded radars on the Army SOF helicopters,” he said. “The thing that needs to happen is they need to do the integration testing and put the new radar on a CV-22.” Because the aircraft flies twice as fast [as a traditional helicopter] and the radar will need to operate over that wider range of air speeds, there is a lot more testing that has to occur, he said.

The new filtration system that Air Force Special Operations Command hopes to field in three to four years will improve the performance of the Osprey’s engine.

“The filter will increase the number of hours that the engine stays on the airplane,” Breeze said. “For any aircraft, you always have to replace the engine after a certain number of hours because the health of that engine decreases over time.” The dry environments that special ops forces often operate in accelerate that problem because aircraft engines are more likely to take in dust and sand.

Keeping that component on the platform longer will result in significant cost savings for the government, he noted.

Lemaster said the Bell-Boeing Osprey manufacturing team is under contract to develop the filtration system, which they refer to as the “inlet barrier filter” or the “improved inlet solution.” The system is being built as a part of Bell’s workshare at its facility in Fort Worth, Texas.

For the upgrade, a bypass filter will be placed on the end of the inlet to the engine, which will enable it to separate sand, dust and water, and stop those elements from leaking into the motor. “It’s under development now. It’s got to get through qualification testing, and then we’ll be able to push it out and go retrofit all of the AFSOC airplanes,” Lemaster said.

Breeze said testing will begin in 18 months to two years, and the command plans to field the system in the 2019 to 2020 timeframe.

The other significant modification under consideration for Air Force Special Operations Command’s Osprey — though no final decisions have been made — is arming the platform with additional weapons.

The Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Virginia is conducting a study to determine the optimal weapon for the V-22 and where that weapon should be placed in order to maximize coverage of the aircraft. The study, which began in 2015, is expected to continue through 2018. It will focus on guns and precision-guided munitions, according to Naval Air Systems Command.

“We currently do have a .50 caliber weapon on the tail, but we’re just foreseeing that maybe in the future we may need some more protection,” Breeze noted.

The ability to add precision-guided munitions to the V-22 has already been proven on two separate occasions.

In December 2014, an Osprey fired two Raytheon BGM-176B Griffin B missiles, marking the first time a forward-firing missile had been launched from the aircraft, according to a Raytheon press release.

Test crews shot the missiles, scoring direct hits from both hover mode and conversion mode at 110 knots, the release said.

During a demonstration with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as part of its persistent close-air-support program, a Marine Corps Osprey fired a non-explosive version of a tube-launched Griffin missile. “Guided by a targeting laser, the missile hit exactly where directed and, had it been explosive, would have destroyed the target,” a March 2015 DARPA press release said. During the test an AeroVironment Switchblade unmanned aerial system — which destroys targets kamikaze-style — was also successfully fired off the aircraft.

Placing additional weapons on the V-22 would complement other recent efforts to better protect the aircraft and its crews.

That need was realized in December 2013 during a mission in South Sudan. Three AFSOC V-22s were attempting to evacuate U.S. citizens from a United Nations compound in the embattled town of Bor. As the aircraft approached landing, they were assaulted with heavy gunfire, resulting in injuries to four Navy SEALs.

In March 2014, Air Force Special Operations Command issued a combat mission need statement for greater ballistic protection as a result of that operation. The outcome was the advanced ballistic stopping system developed by The Protective Group, a company that specializes in lightweight composite armor solutions. The final design consists of 66 armor panels that can be placed on the inside of the aircraft to protect against small arms fire. 

“It’s a roll on/roll off capability that you can configure depending on the mission set that you’re conducting,” Breeze said. The armor is being used on V-22s in the field today, he added.

Editor's Note: This story was updated with the precise year for Desert One.

Topics: Aviation, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

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