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.