By Marina Malenic

RIDLEY PARK, Pa.–With criticism of V-22 Osprey operational costs and readiness rates mounting in Washington, the Marine Corps has asked contractors Bell Helicopter Textron [TXT] and Boeing [BA] to quickly make the necessary adjustments to the rotorcraft, industry officials here said yesterday.

“We’ve been told to have this readiness thing fixed in the next two years,” John Rader, Boeing’s V-22 program manager, told Defense Daily during a visit to the company’s V-22 production facility here.

“We’re looking to the see the needle move…in the next few months,” he added.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released in May criticized the aircraft’s “unresolved operational effectiveness and suitability issues.” Some members of Congress have seized on excessive flying hour costs and lower than expected reliability rates in the report as evidence that the program ought to be terminated (Defense Daily, June 24).

The Marine Corps is procuring MV-22s for its own fleet, as well as CV-22s for Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC). The Marines have deployed MV-22s to Iraq three times and currently have a squadron flying from the deck of the USS Bataan (LHD-5) amphibious assault ship.

The Marines have struggled to raise mission-capable rates above 62 percent during their deployment in Iraq, according to GAO. The MV-22s have flown 55,000 hours there, and the cost per flight hour has exceeded the Marines’ Fiscal Year 2009 expectation of $5,362 by 119 percent, according to the report.

Rader said the GAO report revealed nothing that was previously unknown about the aircraft and that Bell-Boeing had been making steady improvements to the design of the platform over the course of several years.

“Even before the Iraq deployments, we knew from some initial tests…that there were some things that needed to be changed about the aircraft,” he said. “We’ve been on a corrective action course…probably for the last three years.”

One of the main lessons gleaned from the Iraq missions, according to Rader, was what numbers of spare parts are needed on a typical deployment.

“Where we guessed wrong, that caused some of the aircraft to not operate,” he said.

Many of the incorrect estimates on spare parts were attributable to the desert environment, Rader said. For example, the air filtration system for the air conditioner was not suited to that environment and caused the cooling system to break down after only 10 hours. The system’s normal life expectancy is “a few hundred hours,” according to Rader, and now that the filtration system has been redesigned it is exceeding those expectations.

That and several other redesigns will be incorporated into the Block C version of the MV-22, which is expected to go on contract in October, Boeing officials said. Whether those alterations will be retrofitted onto Block B aircraft, some of which are still in production, remains a decision for the Pentagon.

Rader noted that the MV-22s flying from the deck of the Bataan have faired considerably better.

“It’s a familiar environment for the Marines, and as a result we’re finding more of the anticipated problems,” he said. He added that, of the five different types of aircraft flying from the Bataan, Marine Corps officials have praised the MV-22 as having “the highest readiness rates of any aircraft out there.”

According to Rader, “performance and safety has all been top notch” and what remains to be done, aside from minor redesigns, is better maintenance training.

“If you look at the readiness level for new, revolutionary aircraft, what we are finding with the V-22 is comparable,” he said. He acknowledged, however, that steady improvements must be made.

Meanwhile, Boeing is also looking to attract more international interest in the program by offering the aircraft at a better price. Phil Dunford, Boeing’s vice president for rotorcraft systems, said yesterday that he wants to drive down costs “substantially.” He declined to specify a new target price.

Gene Cunningham, Bell-Boeing vice president for the V-22 program, said the companies plan to ramp up V-22 production from 17 this year, to 28 next year, and then 36 in 2011 and beyond.

“That significantly increased production rate will help drive down cost,” Cunningham said in a telephone interview. “At about the time that we’re hitting that nice ramp-up, in about four to five years, is a good time for international customers to consider coming into the program.”

Israel, Japan, Norway and the United Kingdom are a few of the countries said to be considering a purchase.

Meanwhile, AFSOC’s CV-22s are fairing considerably better in their initial deployments to Africa and South America. Air Force officials earlier this year said the command is seeking up to 10 additional aircraft in the service’s five-year buy (Defense Daily, March 16).

Cunningham said Bell-Boeing officials “don’t see difficulty in terms of meeting that demand” if the Air Force asks for the additional aircraft.