By Emelie Rutherford

The head of a House oversight committee called yesterday for halting production of the V-22 Osprey after government auditors highlighted shortcomings with the Marine Corps’ tilt-rotor aircraft including availability and reliability challenges in Iraq.

“What we have heard today convinces me that the dream of a viable high-speed, long-range, tilt-rotor aircraft has not been realized,” House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) said in a statement at the end of a hearing with both Marine Corps officials who lauded the helicopter-airplane hybrid as well as V-22 critics.

“It’s time to put the Osprey out of its misery,” Towns said, citing the aircraft’s operational challenges and rising costs.

Towns said he will present a report on the committee’s V-22 investigation to the House Appropriations Committee and recommend a halt to production of the Bell Helicopter Textron [TXT]-Boeing [BA] aircraft recently deployed to Iraq. The Pentagon plans to deploy it to Afghanistan and aboard a ship this fall, and wants to buy 282 more of the aircraft that debuted in recent years after a multi-decade and troubled development. The Marine Corps took the lead in developing the V-22, which also is being built for the Air Force, Navy, and Special Operations Command.

It remains to be seen if Towns’ report will sway House appropriators. The fiscal year 2010 defense authorization bill nearing the House floor fully funds the Pentagon’s request for the aircraft, which is currently being purchased under a multiyear procurement contract.

The House oversight committee’s investigation includes documents it recently received from the Pentagon on the V-22’s readiness levels. The panel cut short a May 21 hearing on the V-22 because it had not received the materials at the time. (Defense Daily, May 22). In addition, Towns yesterday highlighted a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) study on the V-22’s operational effectiveness, suitability, and cost.

Marine Lt. Gen. George Trautman, deputy commandant for aviation, vehemently defended the V-22 yesterday, saying it gives Marines asymmetrical advantage on the battlefield. It allows troops to be projected deep into battlespaces at high speeds and altitudes, and still can land with the ease of a helicopter, he said.

“Simply put, the V-22 has transformed the way we are fighting in manner akin to introduction of the helicopter in the middle of the last century,” he said.
The aircraft accomplished in Iraq all assigned taskings except for instances of maintenance and weather aborts, Trautman said in written testimony.

Trautman said the V-22 has already demonstrated its ability to save lives. He acknowledged its level of readiness is not where the service would like, but argued other aircraft programs saw similar readiness issues at this stage of their lives.

In Iraq, the V-22’s mission capability and full-mission capability rates fell significantly below required levels, Mike Sullivan, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the GAO, testified yesterday.

While the Marine Corps’ desired minimum V-22 availability rate is 82 percent, the aircraft’s rates–as experienced by three squadrons previously deployed to Iraq–were on average 68, 57, and 61 percent, Sullivan said

The GAO report found V-22 availability rates were lower than desired because of unreliable component parts and problems with its relatively nascent supply chain.

Towns said documents the Pentagon provided to the committee on the V-22’s combat readiness showed “surprising and appalling” information.

Of the 105 V-22s the Marine Corps purchased since 1988, 47 are considered combat deployable. Of those 47, just 22 were ready for combat on June 3, the day selected for assessment by the Marine Corps, he said.

Trautman attributed the lower-than-desired availability largely to components not meeting the predicted “mean time between failure” that engineers determined several years ago.

“We’ve ridden this airplane far harder than any other airplane that I can describe in the last 30 years, and so the combination of riding it hard, having some predictive modeling not being exactly where it is that we desired, has put us in a hold regarding reliability,” the general said.

The House oversight committee also determined, based upon documents provided by the Pentagon, that the V-22’s role in Iraq was limited because of vulnerability to hostile fire, lack of maneuverability, and unreliability in the heat and sand of Iraq.

The GAO, meanwhile also identified issues with the V-22’s operational effectiveness. Its report notes challenges with the aircraft’s ability to operate in high-threat environments, carry the required number of combat troops and transport external cargo, operate from Navy ships, and conduct missions in more-extreme environments throughout the world.

The GAO’s V-22 report, overall, found both strengths and deficiencies in terms of the V-22’s expected capabilities. On the positive side, it noted the V-22’s superior speed and range.

While the GAO concluded the V-22 proved it can complete missions assigned in low-threat environments via its work in Iraq, it said the aircraft may not be able to accomplish the full range of missions of the legacy helicopters it is replacing.

The GAO recommended the defense secretary compel a new V-22 alternatives analysis and that the Marine Corps craft a “prioritized strategy to improve system suitability, reduce operational costs, and align future budget requests.” The Pentagon agreed with the GAO recommendation for the Marine Corps to develop a new strategy for the V-22, but did not concur with the other suggestion to conduct a new alternatives analysis.