Looking Back at the History of the Osprey Nation

By Robbin Laird

If the USMC leadership and the Osprey nation of marine corps operators had not had the courage to introduce the Osprey to combat in 2007, we could still be debating the Osprey as some sort of prototype.

But by deploying the asset, building out its capabilities and learning how to use it in combat, the Marines began the process of a significant transformation of its mindset and approach to combat operations.

Operating at the speed and distance at which the Osprey could facilitate changed many aspects of how the USN-Marine Corps team had to think about the ARG-MEU and has led to entirely new ways to use the sea base.

Now with the introduction of the 21st century flying combat system, namely the F-35B and the addition of the CH-53K, the force is seeing the next phase of its transformation.

Bell Helicopter, has announced that the Bell Boeing V-22 fleet of tiltrotor aircraft, including both CV-22 and MV-22 variants, has surpassed the 400,000-flight hour milestone.

The V-22 Osprey has been continuously deployed since entering service in 2007 with the United States Marine Corps (USMC) and the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) in 2009.

The aircraft has seen extensive action in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, in Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and as part of a U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force (SPMAGTF) supporting a long-range rapid reaction/crisis response force.

The MV-22B Osprey are operating all around the globe today, transforming the way the Marine Corps conducts assault support, humanitarian relief operations and the broad spectrum of MAGTF missions.“As the number of flight hours indicate, the V-22 Osprey is a mature platform that projects a versatile mission capability for military operations as well as humanitarian relief efforts” said U.S. Marine Corps Col. Matthew Kelly, V-22 Joint Program Manager.

The Bell Boeing V-22 is continuing to achieve outstanding mission success, performing missions only capable with tiltrotor technology. Since entering service, the V-22 has been deployed in numerous missions around the world, including casualty evacuation, tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, resupply, VIP transport and theater security cooperation.

“This 400,000-flight hour milestone is an incredible testament to the V-22’s leap-ahead capability and is a tribute to the men and women of Bell Helicopter and Boeing who build and support tiltrotor aircraft,” said Vince Tobin, executive vice president of Military Programs at Bell Helicopter.

“The Osprey brings unprecedented range, speed and survivability to the warfighter and will continue to excel in combat and in executing some of the most difficult humanitarian operations.”

“The versatile V-22 Osprey is in demand and indispensable among commanders worldwide,” said Kristin Houston, vice president, Boeing Tiltrotor Programs and deputy director, Bell Boeing V-22 Program.

“In order to improve readiness for our servicemen and women, we are significantly investing for the long-term through modifications and upgrades to our V-22 factory in Philadelphia. Together with Bell Helicopter, we are proud of achieving this flight hour milestone.

Our strategic alliance enables the continued success of this program.”

V-22 Osprey fleet tops 400,000 flight hours

The Osprey entered combat as Second Line of Defense was launched and we have covered the Osprey globally since that time.

And at the 8 year mark, we published our look back at the Osprey and its first 8 years.

2015-05-17 By Robbin Laird

This September, the Osprey will reach an 8-year mark in its operational deployment history.

In September 2007, the Osprey was deployed for the first time to Iraq.

The USMC Commandant Conway and Deputy Commandant of Aviation Castellaw announced and made the decision to deploy the Osprey into combat although virtually all public commentators thought this was too early for an “untested” airplane, as one critic put it.

The plane has not only done well, but in 8 short years has demonstrated its capability to have not only a significant impact on combat but to re-shape thinking about concepts of operations.

Earlier, I provided an update at the five-year mark.

Now let us take the story forward as the first global sales of the Osprey have occurred, and the prospects for a new global phase of the Osprey evolution comes into view.

The First Five Years

During the first five years, the Osprey was introduced first into Iraq and then began operating in Afghanistan.

Early deployments were challenging in terms of support and taking the steps to begin to learn the transition from a helo enabled assault force to a tiltrotar assault force.

And at sea, this learning would take the USN-USMC team to rethink the deployment of the classic three-ship formation of the ARG-MEU and to move the ships further away from one another, and to expand the operational engagement area of the ARG-MEU.

It was used for assault operations from the beginning but over time, the role would expand as the support structure matured, readiness rates grew and airplane availability become increasingly robust.

The Osprey’s speed and range meant that the very large number of forward operating bases which rotorcraft require were not needed, and this became crucial as the drawdown in Afghanistan occurred.

And this would lead to the Osprey being tasked with the Army’s medevac mission as the golden hour could NOT be met by the Army with the draw down of bases.

The Marines were tasked to provide for this capability because of its ability to cover Afghanistan without numerous FOBs.

When Odyssey Dawn entered the picture in early 2011, the Osprey altered the performance of the ARG-MEU and provided a core capability ensuring that a downed pilot did not become a political pawn by Qaddafi.

The ability to link seamlessly support services ashore with the deployed fleet via the Osprey allowed the Harriers aboard the USS Kearsarge to increase their sortie rates dramatically.

By providing a whole new speed and range enablement of the strike fleet aboard a large deck amphibious ship, the future was being re-defined by the Osprey.

The USN began to see a whole new way to look at COD or carrier on-board delivery!

MV-22 Osprey Landing Aboard the USNS Robert E. Peary during the Bold Alligator exercise. Shaping an ability to move systems around on platforms, and islands or on Allied bases will be a key to shaping a new Pacific strategy.Credit: USN
MV-22 Osprey Landing Aboard the USNS Robert E. Peary during the Bold Alligator exercise. Shaping an ability to move systems around on platforms, and islands or on Allied bases will be a key to shaping a new Pacific strategy.Credit: USN

As Lt. Col. Boniface, commanding officer of VMM 266, but the Osprey leader in Operation Odyssey Dawn, argued:

A complete transformation to how we are doing business has been involved by operating the Osprey.  In order for the USS Kearsarge, the ARG and the 26th MEU to stay in their operational box during Operation ODESSEY DAWN, and enable the Harriers to continue their strike mission, we were reliant on other assets to supply us.  For many supply items, the Osprey provided the logistical link to allow the ARG to stay on station and not have to move towards at sea re-supply points and meet re-supply ships.

Without the Osprey you would have to pull the USS Kearsarge out of its operational box and send it somewhere where it can get close enough to land or get close enough to resupply ships to actually do the replenishment at sea.  Or you would be forced to remain where you are at and increase the time you’re going to wait for this part by three, four days or even a week.

The ARG ships are only moving at 14-15 knots. At best, let’s just say they move an average of 13 knots per hour, and add that up for the 300 miles that you have to sail.  Now you’re looking at least a day to get the needed folks, parts or equipment and then the transit time back to the operational box. The V22 will do that in a couple hours and allow the ARG/MEU to keep executing its mission.

And the five-year transition was marked by a further demonstration of transformatory impact in the “return to the sea” associated with the initiation of the Bold Alligator exercises begun in 2011.

At the time of the launching of this series of exercises the goal was defined as follows:

Bold Alligator is designed to revitalize the fundamental roles of the Navy and Marine Corps team as “fighters from the sea” and will focus on conducting major amphibious operations simultaneously with a non-combatant evacuation exercise.

“The nature of amphibious forces is that we’re extremely flexible and can be specifically tailored to any mission at any time,” said Rear Adm. Kevin Scott, commander of ESG 2. “Bold Alligator 2011 represents the ongoing efforts in meeting the challenges of future warfare conflicts, overseas contingency operations and homeland defense, so we remain the world’s premier amphibious force.”

But the Osprey was redefining amphibious assault.

It was no longer about being close to shore and launching amphibious vehicles; it was defining your assault vector and moving into the objective area from a much greater distance with Ospreys as a tip of the spear insertion force.

The existence, deployment and appearance of the Osprey changed the entire approach to thinking about amphibious assault. During Bold Alligator 2012, while observers stood on the beach waiting for the assault, Ospreys were already part of taking an “enemy” fort deep in the terrain.  And not only that but one of the Ospreys deployed from a supply ship!

The next three years from 2012 until now have seen the maturing of the Marine Corps in its use of Ospreys to the point whereby the Marines, as the only tiltrotar-enabled assault force in the world, are redefining force insertion.

A number of key developments have unfolded since 2012.

The Next 3 Years: The Battle Tested Osprey

First, the battle testing has continued for the Osprey and its ability to survive in tough conditions clearly proven.

The redundancy of systems aboard the aircraft, and the performance of the composite systems to take battle damage have been clearly combat proven.

This has been recognized with the awarding of the first Distinguished Flying Crosses to Osprey pilots.

The story of what two Marine aviators did to be the first V-22 Osprey pilots awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses is simple, elegant, and and tactically telling. The double-DFC incident underscores how the Marines are using the unique tilt-rotor aircraft — which can take off and land like a helicopter, then fly long distances at high speeds like an airplane — and its ability to perform in extreme battlefield conditions.

I interviewed the two pilots, Major Michael Hutchings and Captain David Haake, at New River Air Station.

Here’s what happened in Afghanistan in June 2012. Two Ospreys, operating with conventional helicopters — Hueys and Cobras — were supporting the insertion of a Marine reconnaissance battalion. The Ospreys, piloted by Maj. Hutchings and Capt. Haake, were flying in a two-ship formation and planning to put down Marines in two waves.

Major Hutchings after the SLD interview. Credit Photo: SLD
Major Hutchings after the SLD interview. Credit Photo: SLD

The first wave went well, and the Ospreys returned to insert the second group of Marines, to provide the enough armed manpower to perform the mission in Taliban infested territory.

As Hutching’s V-22 came down it took heavy fire, which so damaged the plane that the systems on board told the pilot to not fly the aircraft. Of course, not flying was to face certain death, so the task for the pilot and the crew was to find a way out. The plane was badly damaged, but because of the various redundant systems on board and the skill of the pilot and the crew, they were able to depart and to make it back to Camp Bastion in airplane mode. With a traditional rotorcraft, of course, you do not have the relative luxury of switching between two modes of travel.

As Haake followed Hutching in, the Hueys and Cobras informed him that Taliban were occupying the area around the intended landing zone. Haake took his plane up and took stock of his options. While he did, he learned that Hutchings had landed and was under attack, which meant that Haake had little choice but to insert Marines to reinforce the reconnaissance battalion. He did, also under heavy fire. His plane was badly damaged as well and also had on board a wounded Afghan soldier working with the Marines.

In addition to battle damage to the aircraft, the plane was leaking fuel very badly. This meant that the pilot and crew knew they could not make it back to Camp Bastion, but would have to land at a Forward Operating Base, which also had medical support, about 20 miles away. Again, flying on helicopter mode, the plane and crew made it to the base.

But for Maj. Hutchings, the day was not yet over. This was a night insertion so the Marines needed to be extricated the next day. Hutchings flew an Osprey the next morning as part of the effort to pick up the Marines and get them out. Hutchings landed the plane and took onboard the Marines, who were firing at the enemy as they boarded the plane. The Osprey took off to altitude with speed. “I asked the crew chief after about 10 minutes how the Marines in the back were doing. He said they were asleep,” Hutchings added.

Although their tale is the most dramatic testimony to the maturing of the Osprey, it was not the only one I heard. Frank “Blaine” Rhobotham, the Remain Behind Element Officer in Charge of VMM-365, provided another example of the impact of the Osprey and its maturity. He was the head maintainer involved in preparing the Special Purpose MAGTF, which now operates out of Southern Europe and is available to support missions in Africa and the Mediterranean.

Rhobotham discussed the very short period from the generation of the concept of the Special Purpose MAGTF to its execution. It took about eight months from inception to deployment. He emphasized the flexibility of the force and its light footprint. “With a six-ship Osprey force supported by three C-130s we can move it as needed. The three C-130s are carrying all the support equipment to operate the force as well.”

The flexibility which the Osprey now offers Combatant Commanders and US defense officials is a major strategic and tactical tool for the kind of global reality the US now faces, requiring rapid support and insertion of force.

The Next Three Years: SP-MAGTF

Second, there has been the formation, deployment and now high demand use of what the Marines have called Special Purpose Crisis Response MAGTFs.

The first SP-MAGTF was formed in 2013 and leveraging the Osprey-KC130J combination provide a force for supporting humanitarian or crisis interventions.

The Operational Reach of the SP-MAGTF SR in miles. Credit Graphic: SLD
The Operational Reach of the SP-MAGTF SR in miles. Credit Graphic: SLD

In an interview done at the time with Brigadier General James S. O’Meara then commander, U.S. Marine Forces Europe, and deputy commander, U.S. Marine Forces Africa, the role of the new force structure was explained.

The SP-MAGTF is the basic Marine Corps air ground team or MAGTF approach but applied to a Special Purpose Mission.

Special means it’s uniquely tailored to a particular mission or a few mission sets. 

In this case, the focus is upon security embassy reinforcements or a noncombatant evacuation.

Also, it is a rotational force, which provides a crisis response force able, to deal with EUCOM and AFRICOM needs. 

General Dempsey provided strategic guidance, which was looking for a force, which operates with a small footprint, and is low-cost, and rotational.  This is the answer to that guidance.

The SP-MAGTF meets the need to respond rapidly to a developing situation either proactively or reactively with a small force with a small footprint and has its own organic air, which means that it has operational reach as well.

The force is trained and operational and currently operating from a USAF base at Moran in Spain.

SLD: The SP-MAGTF can reach into Africa or operate throughout the Mediterranean.  Obviously, the Osprey is the enabler of such a force along with your organic lift and tanking.

Marines boarding Ospreys for the SP-MAGTF training mission in December 2013. Credit: Murielle Delaporte
Marines boarding Ospreys for the SP-MAGTF training mission in December 2013. Credit: Murielle Delaporte

If you had only helos, this kind of force capability would not be possible, I would assume?B.G. O’Meara: That clearly is correct.  We can operate over a significant combat radius and of course, refueled with our C-130Js can reach throughout the region and all while carrying equipment, and/or two-dozen Marines inside.

It gives AFRICOM commander a unique tailored operational tactical level force with significant operational reach.

The V-22 allows for a paradigm shift and enables a force like SP-MAGTF.  The V-22 gives you that C-130-like distance and speed with the versatility to land in confined, limited area, with no runway or an expeditionary LZ like a helicopter.  

And when you add organic lift and tanking with our C-130Js, the reach is even greater and allows us to operate throughout Africa and the Mediterranean as needed.

And the self-deploying capabilities of the V-22 means that we can plus up the Osprey component as well as needed or other sites throughout the operating area. 

And being Marines, it did not take long to go from formation of the capability to its use.

And when the co-founder of Second Line of Defense, Murielle Delaporte, visited the unit in Moran, Spain in late 2013, it was shortly before they deployed to South Sudan to deal with a crisis.

Her visit underscored the maxim that you train, deploy and train again to get the mission right.

The unit arrived in April 2013 and has engaged in extensive training and patterning with European and African units in preparing for missions in the AFRICOM and EURCOM areas of responsibility.

The Next Three Years: Reworking the GCE and the Osprey Tandem

Third, the impact of the Osprey on the Ground Combat Element is significant.

By operating off of the Osprey, the ability of the infantry to operate at distance, and range and to insert within a variety of access points is dramatically increased.

But to do so requires changes in Command and Control, and operational concepts.

And since 2012, these changes have been actively pursued through a variety of exercises and training efforts.

U.S. Marines with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 161 transport Marines on MV-22B Ospreys during Exercise Iron Fist 2014 to San Clemente Island, Calif., Feb. 14, 2014. Iron Fist is an amphibious exercise that brings together Marines and Sailors from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, other I Marine Expeditionary Force units, and soldiers from the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force, to promote military interoperability and hone individual and small-unit skills through challenging, complex and realistic training. ( Read more: http://www.dvidshub.net/image/1169668/2-11-marines-jgsdf-fire-mortars-san-clemente-island. Credit: 15th MEU
U.S. Marines with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 161 transport Marines on MV-22B Ospreys during Exercise Iron Fist 2014 to San Clemente Island, Calif., Feb. 14, 2014. Credit: 15th MEU

In a piece which Ed Timperlake and I wrote in May 2014, these innovations were highlighted.

The Marines have been experimenting over the past 15 months with  new ways to connect the GCE within an insertion mission, and they are optimistic that their exercises can lead relatively soon to a deployed capability with Marine Expeditionary Units and Special Purpose MAGTFs focused on crisis response missions. 

These units, then, can subsequently use the initial capability and drive further innovation.

The approach has been to deploy the Ground Combat Element (GCE) over a tilt-rotor-enabled distance and to insert the force with situational awareness, which can enhance mission success.  By shaping new communications capability throughout the flight, the GCE getting off the Osprey is much better positioned for mission success.

With a shift from flying to engaging in a forward leaning operation, a number of key mobility requirements have been highlighted as well:

How to continue to provide SA to the insertion force throughout their mission on the ground?

How to simplify the communications packages and to make them easier to use?

How to shift from more static UAV concepts such as Shadow to a small “Kamikaze” UAV which can be pushed out of the Osprey and work with the mission?

How to leverage the F-35s Distributed Aperture System (DAS) capability and to push that information down to the lowest tactical level?

In other words, by working with a tilt-rotor-enabled force, the Marines are forward leaning their experimentation to procure technology that will enable new capabilities, and not simply fill legacy gaps. 

The Next Three Years: The Arrival of the USS America

Fourth, a new ship is getting ready for deployment, the USS America which is built for the Osprey and the F-35B and will be part of the next phase of the evolution of the tiltrotar-enabled assault force.

The USS America is the largest amphibious ship ever built by the United States.

The ship has been built at the Huntington Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi and departed mid-July 2014 for its trip to its initial home part at San Diego, California and then was commissioned in San Francisco in mid-October 2014. It is now undergoing its final trials and preparing to enter the fleet.

The USS America has been built to facilitate this capability and will be augmented as the F-35B is added to the Ospreys, and helicopters already operating from the ship and as unmanned vehicles become a regular operational element as well.

The Osprey has obviously been a game changer, where today, the basic three ship formation used by the Amphibious Ready Group-Marine Expeditionary Unit can “disaggregate” and operate over a three-ship distributed 1,000-mile operational area. Having the communications and ISR to operate over a greater area, and to have sustainment for a disaggregated fleet is a major challenge facing the future of the USN-USMC team.

A major change in the ship can be seen below the flight deck, and these changes are what allow the assault force enabled by new USMC aviation capabilities to operate at greater range and ops tempo. The ship has three synergistic decks, which work together to support flight deck operations. Unlike a traditional large deck amphibious ship where maintenance has to be done topside, maintenance is done in a hangar deck below the flight deck. And below that deck is the intermediate area, where large workspaces exist to support operations with weapons, logistics and sustainment activities.

With the coming of the F-35B to the USS America, the tiltrotar-enabled force adds significant capability. This can work a couple of different ways.

The ship can hold more than 20 F-35Bs, but more likely when F-35Bs are being featured would have a 16 F-35B flying with 4 Osprey combinations. The Ospreys would be used to carry fuel and or weapons, so that the F-35B can move to the mission and operate in a distributed base. This is what the Marines refer to as shaping distributed STOVL ops for the F-35B within which a sea base is a key lily pad from which the plane could operate or could move from.

Alternatively, the F-35B could operate as the ISR, C2 and strike asset to work with the rest of the assault force. The beauty of the F-35B for the Marines is that it allows them to operate off of an amphibious ship with a plane which can do C2 or provide forward leaning ISR.

In other words, the F-35 working with an Osprey-enabled insertion force operating off of the USS American could well re-define the meaning of Close Air Support (CAS). 

The F-35 could enter the objective area prior to the arrival of the combat landing team or CLT, push data back to the incoming force, and then provide fire support, “kinetic” and “non-kinetic,” C2 and ISR support during the insertion and operation.

The other new aviation, which will fly off of the USS America, is the CH-53K, which is the replacement for the CH-53E. Although less sexy than an Osprey or a JSF, the K is a backbone element for an airborne amphibious strike force. The CH-53K will be able to carry three times the load external to itself than can a CH-53E and has many operational improvements, such as a fly by wire system.

In short, when one looks at the outside of the USS America and sees a flight deck roughly the size of its predecessors, one would totally miss the point of how this ship fits into USN-USMC innovation.

Looking under the decks, understanding how a radical change in the workflow, enabling and operating with 21st century USMC strike and insertion assets, is how to understand the ship and its impact.

It is an enabler of 21st century amphibious assault operations and not simply an upgrade on the past.


Shaping a Way Ahead

And the result of eight years of operation and innovation is nothing less than creating a high demand force, the Osprey-enabled assault force, which is redefining ways to think about the insertion and withdrawal of force and new ways to engage, prevail and disengage.

V-22 Osprey
V-22 Osprey in exercise at 29 Palms. Credit: USMC

This is part of the next phase of the evolution of the Osprey when married with the F-35B, namely to do some serious strategic rethinking on how to use newly crafted insertion forces.

Another part is the maturing of the production process, and the impact of the USAF and USMC in using the aircraft on perceptions of allies.

There are a number of allies interested in buying the plane.

But to get to this new phase, challenges need to be met and resolved to clear the path to the next phase, a global one for the Osprey.

 This article was first published 2017-11-27.