Looking Forward and Back at the Tiltrotor Enterprise and Its Impact

By Robbin Laird

The decision by the U.S. Army to go ahead with the  Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) means that the tiltrotor enterprise is being extended further into the future. The unique qualities which tiltrotor aircraft bring to a combat force are a key advantage the U.S and its allies can leverage going forward into the future evolution and development of warfighting concepts of operations.

The FLRAA is being added to the MV-22B, the CV-22 and the CMV-22B and will see an unmanned version added to the enterprise in the future. What this means is not always obvious to analysts.

This was first very obvious to me when attending a Bold Alligator exercise and the Marines were about to do an amphibious assault. While the journalists waited on the beach for the landing craft, the Ospreys had gone deep inland and did the insert.

There is much of that kind of example which has occurred and will occur in the future as the tiltrotor enterprise becomes increasingly intertwined with the innovations associated with force distribution and the operation of autonomous systems with the force.

We can be certain of this by the historical track record shaped by the Marines in generating broad-scale innovation with their version of the Osprey. And here, let me go back into my experience with the aircraft.

I first saw an Osprey when I visited Marine Corps Air Station shortly after they first arrived at New River. I interviewed maintainers who were confronting for the first time a digital aircraft and the new approach to maintenance, clearly a learning process, but one critical to shaping the way ahead to deal with the new generation of digital aircraft which the V-280 clearly is.

During a 2010 visit to New River, I interviewed several members of “Osprey nation” as they referred to themselves, and one interview stands out as a very clear forecast of how the aircraft would be part of new concept of operations for the USMC. This interview reminds us of what to expect as a new tiltrotor aircraft comes to the U.S. Army and U.S. allies who have not experienced the impact of the tiltrotor enterprise on their concept of operations.

In the Fall of 2010, I interviewed Captain Dwyer after his time with the MEU after leaving Haiti. Part of that interview follows which provides his forecast of changes to come driven by the Osprey and its forcing function in relationship to the force.

The USS Nassau on which Captain Dwyer was deployed first went to Haiti and then left for the Gulf of Aden after the Haiti engagement.  During his time on board the USS Nassau, the Marine Expeditionary Group executed some new tactical opportunities associated with the use of the Osprey.  The speed of the Osprey allowed it to work more effectively with fast jets, which allowed the commander to split the MEU into a rotorcraft supported fleet and a fast jet and Osprey supported fleet. 

By splitting the MEU, the commander gains significant operational flexibility, but without loss of the integrity for the operation.  This provides a solid bedrock in preparation for the inclusion of the F-35B with the fleet, anticipating a time when the Osprey and F-35B operate together.

Captain Dwyer: After Haiti, we started heading east and we went to the Gulf of Aden and from there, we were operating out of Djibouti. We actually split the MEU, the entire MEU, which I don’t believe, had been done before in specific type model series, so all of the skids, the Hueys and Cobras were on one ship, and they were almost autonomous. They pretty much got to do different things than the ones they were scheduled to do with different countries under the umbrella of the 24th MEU but didn’t impact our actual operations. The CH-53s, that are grounded in Djibouti, hopped off the Nassau as soon as we got in there, so it was really an AV-8 and V-22 show for four and a half to five months.

Question Because you have operated solely flying the Osprey, you come at the question of the potentials with a fresh eye.  Is this  an opportunity to shape a new relationship with fast jets and to re-shape con-ops?

Captain Dwyer: I saw so much potential for the short take-off vertical landing attack aircraft, fixed-wing aircraft and the V-22 working together. In the future, I would have those two, the V-22 and F-35 working very closely together and even for extended operations when you add the refueling piece. The paring of these two aircraft are far better than paring the V-22 with any of the helicopters.

Question:  Is it because of speed?

Captain Dwyer: Because of speed, range. And not only that. It’s the endurance of the aircraft itself. Basically, you might say once it’s flying, it’s flying. And we had a lot of missions that required flight time above six hours, which is very taxing for the jet guys and for us, it is as well, but maybe not so bad because we can trade off in the cockpit. The fact is that you can have airborne assets, both as a package as well as a trap for sensitive site exploitations, being airborne all at the same time for hours at a time to respond to something that happens in the AOR. It will give you the maximum flexibility for response time down to something like thirty minutes, depending on where it is. And then sanitize the scene from there and then everybody returns home. It’s a capability that I’m not going to say it’s been overlooked but it just hasn’t been utilized like that.

Comment: This provides the capability to insert and withdraw force both airborne and ground insertion. 

Captain Dwyer: We just didn’t really have that capability before, especially on much longer ranges and in sort of response time. So by marrying those two, the fixed-wing aviation asset we can do operations differently. We could neutralize a target and then you can immediately have a strike team insert to confirm that whatever happen, happened, give whatever materials they need, get back on an aircraft and leave in under thirty minutes in any location that we’re operating on a 600-mile ring. This is just so amazing for me.

So, U.S. Army strap and get prepared for significant change.