The US Bell Boeing collaboration on the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor is to brief India on the aircraft sometime early next year. In a meeting held at the Dubai Air Show last month, Minister of State for Defense, Mallipudi Mangapati Pallam Raju, accompanied by the deputy chief of the Indian Navy, Vice Admiral Satish Soni, asked for a briefing on the aircraft.
Bob Carrese, Executive Director of V-22 Business Development of the Bell Boeing Tiltrotor Team spoke to StratPost at the show, saying, “We did have an Indian delegation that came by, the minister – we briefed him on this. We’ve been invited to give another brief to the staff – the naval staff.” Carrese says Admiral Soni was the ‘gentleman who actually requested the brief on the airborne early warning platform on the V-22’. “V-22 as an AEW (Airborne Early Warning) platform,” he said.
This is not the first time the navy has been briefed on the aircraft, but as India moves to firm up designs of the two aircraft carriers it is building at Cochin Shipyard, the navy’s plans for aircraft acquisitions to fully equip the carrier groups with onboard and complementary land-based platforms, replace aging platforms and move towards all-round aerial capabilities, are also due to be set in stone. Carrese says they’ve briefed India on the platform earlier and will make an updated presentation again, ‘probably at the beginning of next year’.
“We’ve made presentations at a number of Heli Power conferences and also presented to the air force chief of staff – responded to a navy RFI (Request for Information) for land-based and ship-based search and rescue platforms,” he says, adding, “We keep refreshing our briefs at the Heli Power. We continuously get inquiries – usually about our ability to reach islands that are well off the coast and (airlift) a rapid reaction force.”
The Indian Navy currently operates a fleet of helicopters and land-based surveillance and transport aircraft that include Dorniers, IL-38s and Tu-142s, besides other, smaller aircraft. Many of these are coming to the end of their life. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has also noted the age of the navy’s rotary assets. The navy has, so far, ordered eight Boeing P-8I Long Range Maritime Reconnaissance (LRMR) aircraft, with an expected follow on order of four, and also plans to shop around for Medium Range Maritime Reconnaissance (MRMR) aircraft.
Carrese says his team has ‘done some early work on airborne early warning systems’. “There’re a number of different radars that could be mounted on the aircraft,” he says, adding, “This is not the first time that we’ve been asked to present some kind of application in that regard.”
The aircraft is already replacing a number of types in the US Marine Corps and the US Air Force. In the US Air Force, alone, 50 Ospreys will replace around a 100 aircraft, both rotary as well as fixed wing. The Marines, too, are planning to replace their CH-46 Sea Knight medium-lift tandem rotor and the earlier model CH-53 aircraft with the Osprey. The US Navy has also been considering the aircraft as a replacement for their C-2 Carrier Onboard Delivery aircraft. But so far, there hasn’t been any move to configure the V-22 for the AEW role.
Since both, the INS Vikramaditya (Admiral Gorshkov) as well as the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier, are STOBAR (Short Take Off But Arrested Recovery), a vertical lift or short take off aircraft would appear to suit an Indian requirement for a carrier-borne AEW platform.
Jean Chamberlain, Vice President, General Manager of Boeing Mobility, says the Osprey is designed for requirements that include shipboard operations, pointing out that its automatic blade fold and wing stow in 90 seconds can reduce its footprint on the ship deck.
John Garrison, President and CEO of Bell Helicopter, points out that the vertical take-off and landing capability allows delivery of critical supplies to any aviation ship, ‘not just big deck carriers’. Colonel Greg Masiello, US Marine Corps, the Joint Program Manager for V-22 at NAVAIR PMA-275, agrees. “It can go to a spectrum of ships. It doesn’t have to go just to an aircraft carrier,” he says, adding, “It works on our amphibious carriers now – they can do a short take off and landing,” or ‘operate ‘from a helipad’.
Marine V-22 pilot, Major Benjamin Debardeleben, who used to fly the CH-46 Sea Knight tandem rotor helicopter, says, “It really provides you more flexibility than I had before because I can taxi on the deck myself, so I don’t have to get towed around. I can also do a short take off from the front – I can do a running take off and take off with a much heavier weight.” The nacelles on the aircraft rotate 96 degrees backwards, allowing the pilot to reverse the aircraft, as well.
“I flew the CH-46 before. And it was a helicopter that did about 110 knots. And with that, the ship was always very close to the shore. And so we had to deal with very short legs. And with the Osprey we’re able to be much further away from the shore or operate in two locations and be able to conduct the mission instead of being just focused on one location,” says the Marine, adding, “You need less bases, you can reach farther with the same aircraft.”
The Osprey could be configured for a variety of other roles, as well. Garrison points out, “As an aerial and ground refueler, the Osprey can serve not only as aerial refueler for helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, it can also land and quickly deliver fuel to ground vehicles.” He thinks the ‘aircraft can easily be modified to serve as an excellent intelligence and surveillance and reconnaissance and command and control platform’.
“So if you had an ISR platform we could roll that capability on it – launch of a navy ship or land-based over pretty long distances. This aircraft can fly up to 25,000 feet, so you get range well beyond – you get the speed – lot of coverage there,” explains Masiello.
Garrison also cites rescue and medevac as obvious applications for the aircraft, something that has been demonstrated during Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya, as well as in Afghanistan.
According to Masiello, six V-22 Ospreys flew around 3,400 nautical miles from the Afghanistan theater to the Mediterranean to deploy for operations in Libya, with aerial refueling by KC-130 aircraft. “It left, in this case, Afghanistan and ended up landing in Greece and Sigonella. 15 hours and 25 minutes,” he recounts. “We flew them – two flight of three – six V-22s – they took off, flew across three continents, and ten countries and over 3, 000 nautical miles – and we did that in less than 15 and a half hours of flight time. We don’t have another aircraft that’s able to do that,” he says.
Debardeleben had a special role to play during that deployment. He remembers getting from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean as a ‘very long day, very long flight’. He was the V-22 pilot that led two aircraft into Libya in March to rescue the crew of a downed F-15 fighter. “I don’t have the timeline in front of me,” he says, but roughly, “I flew for about 40 minutes. There were two MV-22s – I was the section leader. And then we landed for about 2 minutes and then flew back for 40 minutes. So it was an 82-minute flight. We were very quick – in and out.”
“We had all the right information. When I landed there was nothing (no hostiles) going on. It was all quiet. I did have jets overhead to provide security,” he recounts.
“We have done the timing and the estimating for that – if we had used a helicopter it would have been at least an additional hour,” says Masiello.
In June, 2010, an aircraft crashed near Kunduz in Afghanistan, stranding 32 coalition forces. Masiello narrates, “It’s bad weather, it’s at a bad spot where people are less than friendly for the forces in there – we launched two CVs in this case – they flew right over the top of a 15,000 foot mountain range, penetrated the weather, came down, picked them up, brought them home and in less than four hours.” The distance one way was around 400 nautical miles.
The aircraft has also taken fire in Afghanistan and survived. “It’s been engaged by some less than friendly people – I guess they wanted to shoot at it at different times. And fortunately the systems on board and the built-in survivability aspects of the V-22 make it very hard to hit. But on the occasion when that aircraft has been hit, it’s incredibly survivable. And it’s repairable right in the field – the composite structure lends itself to great amount of abilities even in the field for repairs,” says Masiello. “This aircraft is the safest tactical rotorcraft that the Marine Corps operates,” he says.
Chamberlain says, “The V-22 is designed to carry troops into the danger zone and return those troops safely. The features that allow for this are ballistic tolerant fuselage, design redundancy, advanced warning systems, and counter-measures.” She says the times spent in these high threat zones are dramatically less than what is experienced by legacy aircraft.
The distinctive profile of the aircraft makes it instantly recognizable. The Osprey has rotating engines on fixed wings that enable vertical lift like a helicopter and it the ‘speed and range of a turbo-prop airplane’.
“It covers most of the envelope that a helicopter as well as our fixed wing transport aircraft in a single platform,” says Chamberlain. She says the aircraft can execute missions at speeds of 282 knots, ‘more than twice as fast as conventional helicopters’. It has a maximum load range of 1000 nautical miles, but she says, “Since it is refuelable, that range can be extended indefinitely.”
Masiello says, “This is not a heavy lift aircraft, but with the exception of those extreme heavy lift missions, there’s not much that this aircraft couldn’t do. And it can do it farther, faster and it can carry still the significant amount of 20,000 pounds (around nine tons),” besides an external load of 12,000 pounds (around six tons).
Walking to the V-22 at the flight line at Dubai, your correspondent marveled at the sight of a C-27J Spartan aircraft performing a 360 degree roll. This elicited a snort from a member of the Osprey team, “Yes, but can it hover?”
The aircraft has, however, been criticized for its cost. At USD 70 million a unit, it’s as expensive as some fighter aircraft and its cost of operation has also increased, according to one report, by 61 percent.
Masiello says cost management is a continuing focus for his team. “We’ve got a very deliberate plan,” he says, explaining, “We’ve made almost a 20 percent decrease in our cost per flight hour.”
His team has gone over ‘42 different components’ to bring down the operating cost. “It’s almost 130,000 flight hours. Whether it’s a component or a different methodology to maintain the aircraft and we’ve put that back into the calculus, if you will, and we’ve been able to dramatically and steadily decrease the operating cost. And we’re not done, we’re going to continue with that.”
Masiello also says they’re also working on improving the performance of the aircraft. “Our previous software drop – this is a software driven aircraft, so without any hardware changes we increased the air speed by 20 knots.” He says the next software drop will increase the power of the aircraft ‘just by changing the pitch of the prop rotor, no physical change’.
The Bell Boeing team is planning to ramp up full rate production, up to 40 aircraft a year, in 2013 and Garrison says they can begin deliveries to international customers from 2015 onwards.