A U.S. military aircraft crash that killed two Marines Wednesday will give new ammunition to critics of the V-22 Osprey, but the incident alone should not doom the controversial program.
The Marines were killed and two others hurt when a V-22 tilt rotor aircraft went down in southern Morocco, where 1,200 U.S. troops are participating in African Lion, an annual exercise with local forces. Marine Corps officials are investigating the crash, and the cause it not yet known.
The crash is the latest black eye for a program that struggled for decades to get off the ground, besieged by cost increases and fielding delays. Last November, the projected lifetime costs of operating the V-22 fleet swelled by $46.1 billion, to $121.5 billion.
The V-22, built by Boeing and Bell, can take off like a helicopter, then rotate its nacelles and fly like a plane, giving it the ability to travel at much greater speeds than the much older U.S. military choppers it will replace. The powerful aircraft has a troubled past. Several test flights have ended in fatal crashes. The program was plagued for years with developmental and technical problems while costing much more than initially projected.
Since it was finally fielded several years ago and sent into combat, military leaders, V-22 proponents and Marine pilots have repeatedly given the Osprey fleet glowing reviews.
"The V-22 remains the safest rotorcraft in the Marine Corps fleet. The Moroccan incident is the first fatal crash of a Marine tiltrotor in over ten years, despite numerous deployments to war zones and disaster locations like Haiti," says Loren Thompson, an analyst at the Lexington Institute and defense industry consultant. "Tiltrotor technology has revolutionized expeditionary operations, combining in a single airframe the vertical agility of a helicopter with the speed and range of a fixed-wing plane. The resulting gain in operational performance makes a return to conventional rotorcraft unthinkable."
Richard Whittle, a longtime Pentagon correspondent and author of what many defense insiders call the definitive book on the V-22, tells U.S. News & World Report "whether this crash says anything new about the Osprey as an aircraft is impossible to say until we know the details of what happened."
"In any event, it's worth pointing out that, popular impressions aside, this is actually only the fifth fatal Osprey crash in history, and the first the Marines have suffered in more than a decade. Over the same period, the U.S. military has lost 411 conventional helicopters at a cost of nearly 600 American lives," says Whittle, now a senior scholar at the Washington, D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson Center. "The only other fatal mishap involving an Osprey since 2000 occurred in April 2010, when an Air Force CV-22 carrying Army Rangers flipped over onto its back and killed four people after making a hard landing and hitting a ditch with its nose gear during a night raid in Afghanistan."
Yet, due largely to its high costs, the program makes the list of almost every detailed plan for cutting the annual Pentagon budget. The federal deficit reduction panel created by President Obama, for instance, called for immediately ending the program and canceling all future purchases to save money in 2010.
Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a California Democrat, called the program a "boondoggle" for the "military-industrial complex" last year.
Woolsey said on the House floor that the aircraft has received "mediocre marks" from independent auditors and "under performed across the board." She added that there are reports the V-22 has struggled in "high-threat environments," and the job of the Pentagon is not to make defense contractors rich.
But in the two defense budget cycles since, the V-22 program has survived, with lawmakers green-lighting the Marine Corps' proposed plans and funding levels. The Corps spent much of 2010 and 2011 telling anyone who would listen, from lawmakers to defense analysts to journalists, that the once-troubled V-22 was finally out of the woods and performing better than expected in Afghanistan.
A V-22 rescued the pilot of an American F-15E fighter that crashed in Libya. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos frequently tells audiences and interviewers that he often flies around volatile Afghanistan in an Osprey. And Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was pictured exiting a V-22 during a recent swing through Afghanistan.
Longtime Pentagon watchers in Washington say V-22 critics will try to use the crash in new attempts to kill the program.
"In today's climate, defenders and critics of the V-22 will probably opine their agenda as the facts slowly come in, mostly before," says Winslow Wheeler, a former congressional aide on defense matters now with the Center for Defense Information.
Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at the Teal Group, says "V-22 supporters and detractors have seen what they want to see for decades now."
Still, analysts say the Moroccan mishap will not be enough to sway ample numbers of lawmakers to vote in favor in terminating the program.
"One unfortunate accident won't tip the balance," says Aboulafia, "unless the crash was caused by a design flaw, which is unlikely."
Whittle says inside the Beltway "the Osprey program is in better shape than it's ever been, despite this crash."
"There are always critics in Congress and elsewhere who're going to want to cancel programs, and some will no doubt use this as an occasion to claim the V-22 is 'accident-prone,'" Whittle says. "But that ignores the facts, and if the V-22 survived from 1989 to 1992 when it had barely flown and then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney was trying his best to scrap it, I hardly think Congress is going to kill it now."
The Pentagon intends to buy around 450, with the majority going to the Marines and 50 to the Air Force. One V-22 proponent says the crash shows the military needs more Ospreys in its fleet.
"The accident does underscore the requirement to purchase a prudent number of attrition aircraft," says Thompson. "Aircraft losses are a common phenomenon for the military even in peacetime--witness the crash of a Navy jet in Virginia last week--so there must be an adequate inventory of airframes to sustain operations over several decades."