Friday, September 7, 2007

Anbar, meet the Ospreys

Loitering in the chow hall last night, I was sitting with the CASEVAC (casualty evacuation) corpsmen stationed here in Taquaddum. Having worked with them over the past seven months, I've never had the opportunity to sit and actually hold down a conversation until tonight. Flying missions with them was always a rushed affair filled with yelling report over the roar of prop wash and vague hand signals in the helo while we transported critically ill patients to Level III hospitals.
When I first arrived in Anbar in February, mission breakdown followed these general rules: daytime medevac was handled by the Marine Corps. and a pair of H-46 helicopters with two CASEVAC corpsmen, while night missions were handled by the Army aeromedical Blackhawks and a flight medic. However, I noticed over the past month that medevac missions called during the day were becoming more of an Army show. The invite is open to whoever shows up at the door, but only Blackhawks were coming to party. I made a mental note of it, but wasn't quite sure what to make of the change. Another clue was the Marines we found at our medical helo pad in Ramadi last week taking measurements.
So last night over pie and coffee, they told me the Army has completely taken over casevac and medevac duties in Iraq. The CASEVAC corpsmen I was sitting with said they've essentially been unemployed for the past three weeks. Question is, why?
Turns out, this is all related to the impending mission changes of the Marine Corps. H-46, as they are being replaced soon with the MV-22 Osprey. Army H-47 Chinooks have moved into Taquaddum, and Al Asad is finalizing preparations for 10 MV-22s out of New River Marine Corps. Air Station.
With over 19 years of research and development under it's collective belt, the MV-22 tilt rotor Osprey enters the fray in Anbar. Currently in transit on one of the Navy's helicopter assault carriers, the MV-22 is slated to begin operations in western Anbar before the close of September.
Considered a superior replacement to the Marine Corps. H-46 dual rotor medium lift helicopters, 5 MV-22 squadrons have been stood up coast to coast and are gearing up for deployments. The cornerstone of Marine assault support for over 40 years, the H-46 will be completely replaced by the MV-22 by 2018. Landing like a helicopter, but flying like a prop plane, the MV-22 is a one-of-a-kind production aircraft jointly developed by Boeing out of Philadelphia and Bell-Texron out of Ft. Worth, Texas.
Entering it's first real world mission, the Osprey comes with a long history of controversy and teeth gnashing in Washington and the Pentagon. Believe it or not, then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney under the Bush senior administration spent his entire SecDef tenure trying to drive a stake through the heart of this program. Riddled with cost over-runs and legitimate questions of safety, engineering feasibility, and actual tactical usefulness, the Osprey program was shut down by Cheney only to be revived again by the Clinton administration.
Initial concerns center around several issues that may come into play as the Osprey takes over assault support for combat operations in Iraq:

  • The prop wash during landing is significant. The Marine Corps. needs the Osprey to respond to point of injury areas and medically evacuate casualties from the firefight. Wash from the propellers will be an issue here. In Ramadi, we didn't have the luxury of a concrete landing pad. Just a good old fashioned "improved" landing zone with dirt and rocks. The first time an Osprey lands at Charlie Medical will be an interesting event to say the least.
  • At over 200mph, the Osprey will be fast, but lacks the ability to defend itself. Instead of having machine gunners facing out either side of the aircraft like the Blackhawks and H-46, the plans are to have one gunner located on the rear ramp area.
  • Heat signatures are higher compared to other helicopters. Speed, maneuverability, and countermeasures will need to offset this liability.
  • Helicopters are crucial to the mission because they are just plain useful in so many scenarios: running supplies, dropping off troops almost anywhere they are needed, aircraft personnel recovery (TRAP), ecetera. The Osprey is touted to be better at everything, taking Marine Corps. combat operations to new paradigms of tactical ability. Deploying with a Marine Expeditionary Unit, the Osprey will need to be able to land and take off from every Naval vessel afloat, or it's not going to be operationally useful. It has yet to prove itself in the arena the Marine Corps. performs at it's best: land and support a mess of triggerpullers on the beachhead and send them forth in an overwhelming tempo of speed and firepower.
My thoughts are a mix of scepticism and a genuine desire to see the Osprey come into Anbar and be a resounding success. For the Osprey to land in Anbar and prove incapable of supporting the mission is a thought I just don't want to entertain. We have sacrificed 23 lives, billions of dollars, decades of research and development, and pinned the Marine Corps. entire forseeable future on this one aircraft. The buy-in of the MV-22 isn't just big deal, it's going to define the Marine Corps. for the next four decades.


Anonymous said...

If that is a picture of the MV-22 I can only imagine how huge the helicopter assault carriers must be

Bag Blog said...

I'm a bit of a dumb blonde, but I found the info on the Osprey pretty fascinating. I hope it all works well.

I R A Darth Aggie said...

I can only imagine how huge the helicopter assault carriers must be

They're only marginally smaller than the Nimitz class CVNs (1092 ft deck vs 820 ft deck), but only about 50% of the displacement. Oh, and the LHA's carry about 3000 Marines.

I am at once excited, but with reservations, about the deployment of the Osprey into Iraq. It could be good, it could be bad. Most likely, it'll get off to a rocky start and then as experience is gained, things will improve.

David M said...

Trackbacked by The Thunder Run - Web Reconnaissance for 09/10/2007
A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the check back often.

LT GO said...

The Wasp/LHD class is the newest helicopter assault carriers we have, with the first commissioned in 1992 (USS Wasp). Ship length is 844 feet, with a crew compliment of around 750.
They can house and transport 1800 Marines as part of a Marine Expeditionary Unit.

Anonymous said...

VMM-263 is still in New River, but will be embarking aboard the Wasp very soon. Look forward to seeing you aboard an Osprey. By the way, your blog motivated me to start my own. Wish me luck.

Maj Gilbert

LT GO said...

Great to hear from you, Major. Thanks for keeping me honest, and good luck on the blogging!

Anonymous said...

not being able to defend itself flying into or out of a hot lz sounds remarkably stupid. I guess it could always fly in backwards because it does have a small gun facing out the back. also unlike the older birds this one will surely crash if its engines fail. what were people thinking? amazing that the marines have done this. am i missing something?

Semper Fi Mom said...

I have a son in one of the Osprey units based in New River. I am following this closely. On the subject of the Osprey not being able to defend itself, it was my understanding that no troop transport aircraft has forward mounted guns.

BrianFH said...

Aside from defending itself, it will be hard to use for ground support. Prediction: some will be modified with gun doors to either side.