In what is a highly controversial move, the US Navy has announced that it will procure tilt-rotor V-22 Ospreys to replace its venerable C-2A Greyhound Carrier On-board Delivery (COD) aircraft. Here's why it's such a terribly bad idea.
The C-2 Greyhound replacement saga has gone on for many years, but it has come to head in recent months with three main proposals being put forward as solutions. One would be to rebuild or build new C-2 Greyhounds based on the Navy's updated E-2D Advanced Hawkeye Airborne Early Waring and Control (AEW&C) aircraft. The Grumman E-2 is a developmental cousin of the C-2 dating back to the 1960s. The other two proposals included procuring tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey and a novel plan by Lockheed Martin to rebuild a portion of the defunct S-3B Viking fleet into COD aircraft, bringing the COD mission finally into the jet age. You can read an in depth report on all these options in this past Foxtrot Alpha feature.
I have talked to many people over the years involved with the C-2 community, most of them being pilots and some maintainers, and although they had their issues with their aging Greyhounds, none of them had one good thing to say about the V-22's capabilities when it comes to the COD mission. In fact, the only person who I have ever talked to that was very supportive of the V-22 in the role was a high-time C-2 pilot that was going to work for the then fledgling V-22 COD program!
In a Pentagon memo released just last week, it is clear that the Navy will buy four Ospreys each year from fiscal 2018 to 2020, which will be part of an existing multi-year contract buy that was intended for the Marines and the USAF. The Navy's 12 V-22s will be deferred from the USMC portion of that buy. In total, the requirement stands for 48 HV-22s to replace the C-2 in full. This will be in addition to the 360 Osprey requirement that the USMC has and the Air Force Special Operations Command requirement of 50, bringing the total Osprey buy for the DoD to 458. The USMC will be responsible for Navy pilot training, at least as the program is spinning up, and the Navy will be responsible for outfitting their Ospreys specifically for the COD mission.
At one time the Navy was going to buy hundreds of Ospreys for use in the vertical lift and transport roles as well as for anti-submarine warfare and sea control. Over time the Navy's planned Osprey buy dwindled down to zero, but still, the Bell-Boeing Osprey consortium was hopeful that the COD mission could reignite the service's interest in the Osprey for a myriad of missions if only they could get the hybrid aircraft into USN inventory. Still, it is impossible to get around the fact that the basic Osprey costs close to $70M apiece, which is nearly double that of an fully outfitted MH-60R and about three times that of a mission-ready MH-60S.
Although the Greyhound is faster, flies much higher, is pressurized, has a much larger cargo hold capable of carrying the latest fighter jet engines and has a much longer range, all critical components that let the carrier operate further from shores even in bad weather, the V-22 has the ability to land and takeoff vertically. Although this feature has no value for the baseline COD mission , the Navy sees this capability as something that can change the way it does logistics for the Carrier Strike Group.
Under a new logistical concept, the HV-22 would fly support missions directly to smaller vessels in the flotilla as well as to the carrier itself. In other words, the HV-22 would not have to unload its full payload on the carrier, with H-60s having to then distribute each ship's individual cargo from there via vertical replenishment. The HV-22 could take that cargo directly to those ships either by landing and unloading it out of their cabin on larger decked surface combatants or via under-slung load (vertical replenishment) for smaller decked ships. So the HV-22 could presumably eliminate the current 'hub and spoke' aerial logistics train used around the Carrier Strike Group today. It sounds interesting but is this really an solution to a non-existent problem?
Whether or not the ability to fly over storms in a pressurized cabin over almost three times the distance when compared to an Osprey is worth sacrificing for the theoretical efficiency of having a COD platform being capable of vertical landing and takeoff is highly debatable. In fact, no matter how you look at it, it appears that by going with a V-22 COD concept the Navy will be sacrificing raw performance and independence from the shoreline when it comes to the COD mission in almost every respect.
The V-22 COD will limit the Carrier Strike Group's access to high-speed logistics in 'blue water' (far out to sea) operating environments all in the hopes of finding new logistical efficiencies around the Carrier Strike Group itself. This is a terrible trade-off considering the fact that America is supposedly pivoting strategically to the vastness of the Pacific Theater, a place where range is everything and in some cases pulling within hundreds of miles of a friendly airport is simply not a possibility. In fact, a aerial refuelable fixed wing COD would be ideal, whether it be a S-3 derived concept or an updated C-2.
As our friends over a War Is Boring stated, the V-22's heavy payload, large volume and long-range capabilities pale in comparison to the 50 year old C-2 flying today:
The V-22 has less range and less payload than the C-2: Northrop's prop plane can haul five tons of stuff 1,500 miles, but the V-22's range with the same load could be as little as 50 miles, according to Navy statistics and Bell and Boeing's own literature. That's in part because the V-22 has just over a third the internal space of a C-2 and in the case of bulkier supplies would likely need to haul them slung by a rope suspended from the fuselage—a huge source of drag.
To put it bluntly, the V-22 COD is a horrifically bad decision, one rotten enough to place it right up there with ever-ambiguous Littoral Combat Ship procurement debacle, not in scale but in stupidity at least. Will the Navy get by? Sure. Will it the Navy be a better, more effective fighting force because of it? Absolutely not.
The whole vertical takeoff and landing debate comes full circle, with the blatant question being: if the efficiency of vertical takeoff and landing is so great, enough to replace the C-2 at least, than why have hugely expensive catapult and arresting gear capable carriers at all? Why not just buy Amphibious Landing Docks instead of Super Carriers, Ospreys in various configurations and F-35Bs? The answer is that an all STOVL/VTOL force is simply not an analogue for the high-sortie rates and heavy punching capabilities of a conventional Carrier and its Air Wing.
So why is the COD mission the exception to the this rule? It provides an absolutely vital mission for the entire Carrier Strike Group just as the tactical jets do. Is it because it is an unglamorous mission and because of the fact that the C-2 doesn't have anywhere near the lobbying power behind it that the Bell-Boeing Osprey does after decades of being hardened by budget and timeline busting redesigns, mishaps and Congressional foreplay? Or maybe it has to do with the fact that the Osprey line is creeping closer to shutdown as robust international orders fail to materialize (Japan is hopeful, Israel's interest is vaporous, both buys would be for small lots) and the USAF and USMC's requirements are just a handful years out from being fulfilled?
Maybe, just maybe it's time for the Navy's brass to stop fucking with things that actually work. Sometimes their 'innovative ideas at all costs' are a step backwards not forwards. In any case, I will take the guys that perform the mission everyday's word for it over a Pentagon memo- the V-22 is not a COD platform as we know the mission today, period.
Mark my words, the Navy will regret putting down their Greyhounds so that they can replace it with something that is as far from a purpose built-solution to the Navy's critical Carrier On-board Delivery problem as possible.
In the meantime, maybe the Navy brass can explain why they just spent billions procuring an updated E-2D Hawkeye when they could have just used an Osprey airframe instead right?
photos via DoD
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com