TOKYO – Pity the poor V-22. The Marines’ beleaguered tilt-rotor aircraft can’t get any love even overseas. Even before the crash this week of an Air Force V-22 in Florida, local leaders in Japan were lining up against plans to deploy two dozen of the odd-looking hybrid aircraft on Okinawa later this year, citing noise and safety concerns. A protest rally is planned for Sunday that could draw thousands. Japan’s defense minister, in office barely a week, is a strong supporter but has had little to offer, so far.
The stakes are high. The Marines have spent more than 25 years and $20 billion developing the V-22. The first-of-its-kind aircraft can take off and land like a helicopter, but flies with the speed and range of an airplane. It allows the Marines to operate from far over the horizon, out of sight if not range of shore-based missiles and defenses. That’s particularly important in the Asia-Pacific region, with its innumerable islands and thousands of miles of coastline. Without the new aircraft, the Marines will continue to rely on the aging, short-range CH-46 helicopter.
The V-22 has had a troubled history and opponents in Japan have seized on its spotty safety record to try to keep it out. Thirty pilots and Marines were killed in test flights or training disasters during the V-22’s long development period. A senior officer was relieved for allegedly falsifying maintenance records to hide reliability problems. The Osprey’s first flight was in 1989, but the aircraft did not go into service until 2005, after major design changes and huge cost increases.
The aircraft has had a generally good record in recent years, but the Okinawa dispute suffers from bad timing. Only weeks after word leaked in March that the Osprey would be deployed to the Marines’ controversial Futenma air base, a V-22 crashed during a training mission in Morocco, killing two Marines. The Futenma base is located in the heart of a densely populated city and has been the focus of intense opposition since 1996.
The prefectural assembly and 39 of Okinawa’s 41 municipalities have passed resolutions or issued statements opposing introduction of the V-22. Even a plan to temporarily deploy the aircraft to a Marine base in Iwakuni, on the Japanese main islands, has backfired. The idea was to demonstrate that the aircraft were both safe and quiet before sending them on to Okinawa, but local officials in Iwakuni have said they don’t want them either, at least for now. Instead of dealing with the threat of a rising China or working to restructure Japan’s self-defense forces, Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto’s first order of business will be to try to find a place for the Marines’ new aircraft.
Overall, it’s hard not to sympathize with the V-22’s opponents. Local residents have long put up with crime, aircraft noise and the threat of a catastrophic crash at the Futenma base. A CH-53 helicopter crashed — or made a controlled emergency landing, depending on whose version you believe — on the grounds of a university near the base in 2004; no one on the ground was hurt (school was in recess), but a building was damaged and the incident served as a stark reminder of what could happen.
The irony is, for all its perceived faults, the V-22 is almost inarguably safer and quieter than the aircraft it’s supposed to replace. The CH-46s have been around since the 1960s, and while you can swap out engines and components and step up maintenance, at some point they’re going to wear out. I’ve flown on CH-46s dozens of times in Iraq and Afghanistan (and probably on the exact same aircraft years earlier in the first Gulf War), and I hate ‘em. They’re noisy, leak hydraulic fluid all over passengers and cargo and are often forced to divert from their intended destination because of mechanical problems.
I also admit a certain affection for the V-22. I covered the development and first flight of the Osprey as a newspaper reporter in Fort Worth, Texas, in the late 1980s (my Battleland compatriot, Mark Thompson, was there a bit earlier, as well), so I have some history.
The Osprey is an ungainly looking aircraft. It has stubby wings, over-sized engines, a couple of lopped-off tail rudders and a pronounced hump where wing meets fuselage. These design oddities allow the Osprey to fold up like a giant pocket-tool for storage aboard assault ships and aircraft carriers. It makes engineering sense, but it’ll never win awards for aesthetics.
Like any helicopter, it makes a lot of noise on the ground or when hovering, but it’s whisper quiet when it converts to airplane-mode (I’m told that’s because of its long rotor blades, but I don’t really understand the physics).
The Osprey is designed to take off straight up (or with a short takeoff roll). Once airborne, the engine nacelles rotate 90 degrees forward, allowing the aircraft fly like a conventional aircraft. To land, the process is reversed. The Osprey can fly up to 300 mph (482 kph) at a range of 2,300 miles (3,700 km). That’s a lot faster and further than any conventional helicopter.
Until the Morocco crash, the Osprey seemed to be turning the corner on its reputation. It was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan without incident and by 2011 has passed 100,000 flight hours. Two Marine V-22s were used in the rescue of a downed F-15 pilot in Libya last year, and two Air Force s V-22s were used to rescue 30 US Special Operations soldiers in a little-noted mission in Afghanistan a year earlier.
The Marines claim the V-22 has been the safest of all its aircraft over the last 10 years, and while statistics can be juggled, it’s not hard to believe it has a better safety record the CH-46, which it is intended to replace.
Five Air Force crew members were injured in the crash of an Air Force special operations V-22 in in Florida in what was described as a routine training mission. The cause of the crash has not been determined. The Air Force plans to acquire 50 V-22s for special operations missions like the one in Afghanistan in 2010. The Marines plan to buy about 360 altogether.
Lt. Col. David Griesmer, a Marine spokesman on Okinawa, says the Marines plan to deploy a total of 24 Ospreys to Futenma around the end of September, but no final decision has been made.
“The V-22 is highly-capable aircraft with an excellent operational safety record,” says Griesmer. “Its capabilities would significantly strengthen (the Marines’) ability to provide for the defense of Japan, perform humanitarian assistance and disaster response, and fulfill other alliance roles.”
Still, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said on Thursday that Japan will suspend deployment procedures until the results of the Florida crash investigation are complete. And that means no love in Japan, at least for awhile longer.