On April 10th the USMC announced that their last squadron of CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters – HMMT-164 – had officially converted to the V-22 Osprey tilt rotor aircraft. That brings an end to a long and distinguished career for the Sea Knight, but it completes the Corps’ transition to a much more modern and capable platform. The Osprey is an amazing, unique machine. It can carry half a platoon out to 400 miles at transport aircraft speeds, but take off and land vertically like a helicopter. Normally it carries a defensive machine gun on the ramp but can also be fitted with the BAE Remote Guardian system, which adds a retractable belly-mounted 7.62mm minigun and some more sensors. There are plans to add other weaponry including Griffin lightweight missiles and possibly a nose gun. It’s not a rival to the Apache, but it already has enough firepower for low intensity warfare and potentially a lot more is in the pipeline.
The Osprey’s main advantage, though, is the extra reach and flexibility it gives Marine assault ships. It can cruise a lot faster than a helicopter and has double the operating radius, so a large force of Marines can be quickly landed with less warning of their approach. It’s not a radically new capability, but a very significant upgrade of an existing one. Future plans include an air to air refueling variant, and that’s even more exciting in some ways. The USMC, like the rest of the US military, is moving towards a common fuel. A large part of its ground fleet is already certified to run on aviation fuel. That means an Osprey tanker variant could support ground forces as well, something conventional tankers can’t do. In a conventional campaign, logistics vehicles would handle that but for raiding and special operations the potential is obvious; a small, fast-moving ground force could have its range hugely extended by using tilt rotor tankers.
It’s also remarkable how the V-22 has managed to get through enter service relatively smoothly. The path hasn’t been entirely smooth – there have been a few well-publicized accidents and technological hurdles – but a working, heavy duty tilt rotor is a whole new category of aircraft and, despite that, it went from the initial project request to first flight in six years and the first USMC crews started training eleven years later. Compare that to the struggling F-35 project. The most complex version of that is the V/STOL F-35B variant, but V/STOL fighters are nothing new; Britain developed the Harrier in the mid-1960s and the US Marines bought a batch in the 1970s to use from their assault ships. The F-35A and C variants are even less remarkable; still, it’s the Osprey that’s now in service and exceeding expectations, while the F-35 is still stuck in development hell and can’t match the required specifications even after they’ve been revised downwards several times. The US Marines are the main customer for the F-35B, but for now it looks like they’ll get a lot more value from their V-22s.