The Osprey is finally spreading its wings for the rest of the world.
Pentagon sources say the U.S. has negotiated a deal with the Israelis to sell the first ever V-22 Osprey transports to a foreign country. The tilt-rotor aircraft – marketed for its ability to take off and land like a helicopter and fly fast like an airplane – generated negative attention during its initial testing and development as what critics called an unsafe and unreliable vehicle.
But improvements to the Ospreys impressed the Marine Corps, which will soon use it as the primary medium-lift helicopter for all it's troop transport missions. And the V-22 has proven itself on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The purchasing agreement between the U.S. and Israel will be a key component of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's upcoming tour of the Middle East. "It's a significant achievement, and the timing of this trip is appropriate," a senior defense official says. "Secretary Hagel wanted to make sure to travel to Israel very early to finalize parts of this agreement and talk through it."
This agreement, the official added, is one of the most "significant and complex and comprehensive which we've seen."
President Barack Obama has instructed the last two U.S. defense secretaries to strengthen the relationship with Israel. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak met with former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta twice during the Pentagon chief's final weeks in office.
The relationship between the U.S. and Israel is "stronger than ever," the official says. "This is the fruit of that tree."
Other stops on Hagel's trip will include Saudi Arabia, where he will follow up on a 2010 agreement for them to purchase 84 F-15SA Strike Eagles for nearly $30 billion. The first of these fighter jets rolled off an assembly line in Missouri last month and are currently undergoing flight testing.
The United Arab Emirates is also planning to purchase 25 F-16 Block 60 Desert Falcons for about $5 billion.
The total cost of the V-22 deal with Israel, as well as how many they will purchase, has not yet been finalized.
Weapons deals with the Saudis and Emiratis will also include precision bombs and missiles, the official said. U.S. pilots will continue to work with their UAE counterparts in training on the new aircraft.
"We believe and the Israelis believe the provision of these capabilities in no way diminishes Israel's qualitative military edge, but they're consistent with the more commonly addressed threats in the region," said the official.
"This does not signal a change in U.S. policy toward Iran," he said. "These capabilities can be used for a variety of purposes.
The Marine Corps currently has 201 Ospreys, and has employed them as a critical part of its ability to quickly deploy. The aircraft can fly 322 miles per hour at a range of 850 nautical miles, far exceeding the Corps' current workhorse, the CH-46 Sea Knight.
Air Force Special Operations Command is the only other U.S. military service that employs the Osprey. Airmen use their variant, the CV-22, "to conduct day or night low-level penetration into hostile enemy territory, to accomplish infiltration and exfiltration, aerial gunnery support and resupply of special operations forces throughout the world," says AFSOC spokeswoman Capt. Belena Marquez.
They are currently flown by the 20th Special Operations Squadron at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., and the 8th SOS at Hulburt Field, Fla.
"The CV-22 has the one-of-a-kind combination of speed, range and operational flexibility that gives Special Operations an advantage that no other fighting force in the world enjoys," she tells U.S. News. "Essentially, the Osprey is used by our Airmen to ensure that Special Operations Forces are able to be where they are needed, anytime, anyplace."
Other stops on Hagel's tour will include Jordan, where he just promised to send a new Army headquarters unit to help add a sense of permanence to the U.S. military's efforts to contain chemical weapons in Syria.