By Geoff Fein

Although Marine Corps rotary wing platforms have had their share of issues, the successful first deployment of the V-22 Osprey demonstrates that the service’s aircraft are on the right track, according to the former head of Marine Corps aviation.

“Remember when the commandant announced we were going to send the V-22 to Iraq, and remember some of the questions that came out of the audience? [The] concerns that it would fall out of the sky maneuvering, it was extremely vulnerable, etc.,” Lt. Gen. John Castellaw, told Defense Daily in a recent interview. “We just completed our first successful deployment. It proved those who criticized it wrong.”

There were no issues with maneuverability, he added.

Bell Helicopter Textron [TXT] and partner Boeing [BA] build the V-22 tiltrotor aircraft for both the Navy and Air Force.

Castellaw was deputy commandant for programs and resources. He left that position on May 9. Prior to that, he served a tour as deputy commandant for aviation (DCA).

After 36 years in the Marine Corps, Castellaw will be retiring at the end of June.

During his tenure as DCA, he oversaw efforts to correct issues with Marine Corps helicopter programs, including Bell Helicopter Textron‘s [TXT] H- 1.

“Bell has struggled…they have worked hard. They seem to be coming out of the issues we had, so we are going to load ’em up. We are going to press for as many aircraft as they can build because we need those aircraft,” he said. “The UH-1N hasn’t had anything done to it since it was introduced. It goes out overloaded. We have done several iterations of the Cobra, but ask anyone over [in Iraq], they sure love to be sprinkled with shell casings as the thing flies over their heads shooting at the bad guys.”

The H-1 remains an extremely critical program to the Marine Corps, Castellaw added.

Bell is under contract to remanufacture 180 AH-1W Cobra attack helicopters for the Marine Corps and 100 UH-1N Huey utility helicopters into four-bladed AH-1Z and UH-1Y models (Defense Daily, June 26, 2006).

However, the company ran into difficulties that prevented it from meeting the delivery schedules and thrust into question its capacity to execute the program successfully, all of which led to the program’s restructure (Defense Daily, Feb. 27, 2007).

On July 18, 2007, three days before stepping down as the Pentagon’s acquisition chief, Kenneth Krieg approved a plan to restructure the H-1 upgrade program.

Under the terms of the changes, the H-1 program “adds a fourth low-rate initial production lot in Fiscal Year (FY) 2007 and delays full-rate production until FY 2008,” states an information paper on the H-1 Upgrades Program acquisition decision issued on July 18 (2007) by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, and initialed by Krieg. (Defense Daily, July 19).

Although there have been challenges in developing the Marine Corps’ next heavy-lift helicopter, Sikorsky‘s [UTX] CH-53K, Castellaw is confident the program will be successful.

“Sikorsky has been in the heavy-lift business for a long time. They will build them just like other programs,” he said. “Everything is not as smooth as you want it, and we are in early in the game. I have great confidence they will get it sorted out.”

The Navy and Sikorsky have been making design changes to the CH-53K to adjust the center of gravity, switching to a new rotary damper that will continue to provide increased reliability for the aircraft, and looking for ways to shave weight from the aircraft (Defense Daily, May 15).

The CH-53K is expected to enter into preliminary design review before the end of the fiscal year, and into critical design review 12 months after that. Initial Operational Capability is slated for 2015.

While the CH-53E and the follow-on CH-53K are the heavy lift platforms for the Marine Corps, some outside of the service have questioned whether there also needs to be a medium-lift helicopter among the Navy and Marine Corps’ rotary wing assets.

Last fall, Reps. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) and Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) asked the Navy to explore whether the service needed a medium heavy-lift helicopter to conduct a variety of missions from airborne mine detection to battlefield medical evacuation. Of concern was whether the Navy would be able to conduct some missions if it has to rely on the MH-60 helicopter (Defense Daily, Oct. 19).

Bartlett was not calling for a new development effort. He noted at the time there are several helicopters that could fill the gap, including the future presidential helicopter, VH-71, built by a team that includes Lockheed Martin [LMT], AugustaWestland and Bell (Defense Daily, Oct. 19).

Castellaw said the Marine Corps has a medium lift.

“[It’s] called the V-22. [It has a] 10,000-pound capacity, which is limited right now by the hook structure externally,” he said.

“[Our] light helicopter is the Y, medium is the V-22 and our big buster is the E–soon to be 53K, and that fits the category we’ve got…where we need to operate in,” Castellaw added.

With all the pressure on getting the FY ’08 defense bills passed, and a future that could see a decrease in defense spending, Castellaw remains optimistic about the Marine Corps’ direction forward.

“I think we put programs in place, and training…professional military education…we reward performance. So I think we’ve got it right in terms of how the people are going to be,” he said.

“The Marine Corps is an expeditionary fighting organization, having said that, we also do what we are told to do…what the nation asks us to do. Right now the nation is asking us to fight the kind of war we are fighting in Iraq, and we will do that. We will continue to make our case that the best use of the Marine Corps is in those expeditionary operations that are more fluid and mobile and lesser duration that what we see in Iraq,” Castellaw added. “We are going into Afghanistan right now for a short period of time. Again those are the type of operations we excel in. We come in with a great package…air, ground combat, service support and the command and control that lashes it all together plus connects in with whatever the existing command and control network is.

“This commandant has made it clear we are not going to lose that mindset and we are going to turn the vector back toward having a balanced capability, multi-capable, and we will continue to go for that goal,” he said. “My job for him is to get the resources to support that and that’s what we have tried to do with this bill and this POM (program objective memorandum) 10.”