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The Navy is making a new effort to preserve, upgrade and maintain its fleet of Osprey titlrotor aircraft, platforms which have consistently been in high demand from Marine Corps commanders for many years.
Osprey Helicopter Maintenance & Modernization
Corps leaders have consistently sought greater numbers of Osprey for a wide range of missions and deployments, a scenario which has generated a fast-increasing optempo for the aircraft. For many years now, the Corps has been concerned that the high demand for Osprey has made it difficult to sustain and modernize the fleet.
“The quality of maintenance training curricula, maturation, and standardization has not kept pace with readiness requirements. Current maintenance manning levels are unable to support demands for labor The current V-22 sustainment system cannot realize improved and sustained aircraft readiness / availability without significant change,” the Corps writes in its 2018 Marine Aviation Plan published several years ago. “Depot-level maintenance cannot keep up with demand.”
While the need for Osprey maintenance was identified years ago, the Pentagon just announced a new contract modification to extend a key program which has been underway for several years.
Common Configuration, Readiness and Modernization (CC-RAM) Plan
The Navy deal for the Osprey with Bell-Boeing cites the continuation of a key maintenance program for the aircraft begun several years ago called the Common Configuration, Readiness and Modernization (CC-RAM) Plan.
The multi-year effort is, among other things, intended to improve readiness rates and service life for the Navy and Marine Corps Ospreys. CC-RAM has been underway for many years now and involves improvements to the Osprey’s Multi-Spectral Sensor, computer system, infra-red suppressor technology, generators and landing gear control units, the aviation plan specifies.
While initially designed and built years ago, the Osprey airframes remain viable and highly functional, and the aircraft have received a number of key upgrades in recent years. Improvements to the Osprey include configuring variants of the helicopter as refuelers for other aircraft such as F-35s as well as improved digital networking, communications and the possibility of new weapons.
The idea with CC-RAM is to maintain and improve upon the many characteristics of tiltrotor technology which include an ability to fly at airplane speeds yet also hover and maneuver like a helicopter. The speed and hovering ability are among the characteristics being refined, expanded and improved through the sustainment program. Upgraded Ospreys will also operate with improved cargo and payload capacity, survivability system and a new generation of avionics.
The high demand for Ospreys indicates that the multi-role functionality of the aircraft is adding unique operational value. Not only does an Osprey offer considerable ranges such as a 450 nautical mile combat radius, but it can also transport Marines, weapons and high-value cargo for great distances over land and maritime environments. They operate with the range of many fixed-wing aircraft while adding an ability to maneuver and land in austere, forward environments without needing a runway.
Ospreys could be critical to any amphibious assault as they could deliver reinforcements of Marines quickly once forces had established a beachhead area. They can also resupply forward forces with weapons, ammunition and other crucial supplies.
These are probably several reasons why Osprey tiltrotor was first introduced as far back as 2007, yet the platform continues to be refined, upgraded and improved with the expectation of continuing service for many years into the future.
Digital Interoperability (DI)
Adjustments to the aircraft span the full range of possibilities to include routine maintenance, replacements of electronics, avionics and communication equipment and also the implementation of a range of innovative new technologies. One of the most impactful innovations to impact the operational scope of Ospreys involves the integration of a new command and control system called Digital Interoperability (DI).
This enhancement, now integrated across the fleet in large numbers, integrates new datalinks, radio networking and an Iridium Antenna to offer key intelligence data to Osprey crews while “in-flight,”
This kind of adjustment is crucial to sensor-to-shooter time and real-time information exchange, as Osprey crews and traveling Marines can receive vital intelligence updates while en route to an objective and make whatever adjustments may be necessary. It is also quite likely that the DI effort will incorporate technical breakthroughs achieved in the now ongoing Future Vertical Lift program such as lightweight composite materials, new sensors, software enhancements or even new weapons and targeting technologies.
DI helps the Osprey fit into the Pentagon’s Joint All Domain Command and Control effort as it can enable the Osprey to operate as a combat node within a larger, interconnected, multi-domain network. This could, for example, send targeting specifics of enemy surface ships, aircraft or even incoming ballistic missiles to ship-based command and control, nearby fighter jets or ground assets. Digital connectivity supports the broad, multi-service goal of decreasing sensor to shooter time to enable a high-speed kill “web” ahead of an enemy decision cycle.
Perhaps an Osprey can send threat information to a nearby F-35 in position to respond. In yet another scenario, an approaching DI-enabled Osprey carrying Marines to a combat objective can learn of shifting enemy movements while en route to a mission in time to change targeting details or landing information.
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This kind of technological ability could be crucial in Osprey missions such as those involving Mounted Vertical Maneuver in which Marines are brought into hostile territory behind enemy lines from the ocean or land location to conduct clandestine attack and resupply missions, MEDEVAC, reconnaissance operations or weapons delivery.
Large numbers of Osprey tiltrotor aircraft can operate from amphibious assault ships, carriers and a range of different land locations, a circumstance which greatly enables large-scale attack and resupply missions.
An amphibious assault ship can, for instance, travel with as many as 12 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, so large numbers of Marines and even well-sized weapons systems such as towed artillery or Internally Transportable Vehicles can transit from ship to shore. Considering this ability to “mass” force, the fact that the Marine Corps Osprey can now also be configured as a tanker aircraft introduces a substantial new variable for maritime attack. In recent years, the Corps has built and added a V-22 Aerial Refueling System able to support fixed wing aircraft such as an F/A-18 or F-35C or helicopter such as a deck-launched CH-53.
The Osprey refueler, in service now for several years, is described in the Marine Aviation Plan as “able to refuel all MAGTF (Marine Corps Air Ground Task Force) aerial refuel capable aircraft with approximately 10,000 pounds of fuel per each VARS-equipped V-22,”
What would this mean for a carrier or amphib attack with F-35Cs or F-35Bs? Could be quite significant as it might enable a longer-range “mass” air attack across a wide operational area. An entire formation of F-35s could, for example, reach targets areas at more than twice the range should they have an opportunity to be refueled. The advantage here is compounded by the possibility of flying F-35Bs from amphibs, as they too could operate at much greater stand-off ranges if refueled from a VARS-equipped V-22.
The Navy is now flying the carrier-launched drone refueler, the MQ-25 Stingray, however that requires a horizontal take-off from a carrier deck. An Osprey, however, can take off vertically from an amphib or carrier and therefore operate from a wider range of platforms. This presents an ability to “mass” attack using both amphib-launched F-35Bs and carrier-launched F-35Cs.
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If an Osprey has a combat radius of 450 nautical miles, an F-35 could potentially reach target areas from as far away as 1,000 miles if supported by Osprey refuelers. In this kind of scenario, the Ospreys would not have to come within hundreds of miles of the attacked area but could provide double the reach for attacking F-35s in larger numbers. This could be impactful when it comes to dwell time over targets as well, meaning refueled F-35s could remain over target areas for longer periods to engage new emerging targets or adjust as new intelligence information arrives.
This kind of operational possibility could be a difference maker in the event that the US and Japanese Navies need to counter a Chinese amphibious assault on Taiwan or launch some kind of attack on mainland China from stand-off distances not easily reachable by China’s DF-26 long-range anti-ship missiles.
The range of China’s several supposed “carrier killer” land-fired anti-ship missiles have led many to think aircraft carriers might have trouble operating in closer proximity to Chinese shores. An Osprey refueler, however, could mean that a Carrier Air Wing or aircraft on an amphibious assault ship could succeed in projecting power from otherwise unreachable ranges, holding China at risk despite its “carrier-killer” missiles.
Osprey to 2060?
With the Army’s Future Vertical Lift program progressing quickly into the next several years to introduce a new, paradigm-changing aircraft-helicopter platform for the joint force, some might be inclined to wonder how long the well-known Osprey tiltrotor aircraft might be expected to fly.
The answer is likely … a long time. The aircraft has increasingly been in demand in recent years and has continued to greatly expand its mission scope. Secondly, communications, software, computing, weapons systems and cargo-carrying capacity have all been measurably enhanced in recent years in anticipation of many years of continued service.
In fact, it might not be a stretch to envision the Osprey as an aircraft able to fly well into the 2050s, 2060s or even beyond. There is precedent for this kind of possibility with platforms such as the CH-47 Chinook helicopter and Air Force B-52 bomber.
As is the case with the Osprey, the airframes of these platforms have remained viable, solid and highly effective. With minor adjustments and reinforcements, the basic structure and configuration of both the Army Chinook cargo helicopter and Air Force B-52 have remained in tact and unchanged.
What has changed in a considerable way are the mission systems, computing apparatus, sensors, survivability technologies and weapons. Therefore, a modern Chinook helicopter is, apart from its external appearance, virtually nothing like the 1960s era platform which first emerged. It could be quite possible, given the upgrades and sustainment activity that the Chinook could fly for 100 years.
Similar things could be said for the 1950s-era B-52, which may well fly into the 2050s. The class Vietnam-era bomber has received and entirely new suite of technologies to include a new internal weapons bay, radio communications intelligence system, weapons payload capacity and engine.
The largest margin of difference, when it comes to aircraft performance, will likely fall in the realm of electronics, sensing, AI-enabled computing and weapons. These are all things which can be accomplished or enhanced through software upgrades and computing adjustments, improvements which do not require major hardware changes.
The Navy’s future vision for the Osprey is also evidenced by its new “Navy variant” CVM-22B aircraft intended to take over the Carrier Onboard Delivery mission. The Navy variant, which will launch from the deck of carriers to transport critical personnel from ship-to-shore, will replace the C-2 Greyhound aircraft which has flown for many years. As a vertical take-off and landing platform, an Osprey-enabled COD mission can take place in a wider range of mission scenarios.
The Navy variant is engineered with extended fuel tanks to increase range, enabling an aircraft to travel 1,150 miles from shore to ship as well as a new beyond-the-horizon radio system. selves are viable and likely to hold up for many years into the future, electronics, computing and software upgrades are likely to provide the margin of difference when it comes to sustained operational functionality. This is likely a key reason why the Navy is now extending its multi-year maintenance and sustainment contract with Bell-Boeing for the Osprey called the Common Configuration, Readiness and Modernization plan.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven -the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.