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The War Nerd February 21, 2008
Hardware For Dummies: The Osprey Vs. The Hornet
By Gary Brecher Browse author Email
Page 2 of 4

Nobody would have made it home alive, but at least they would have died killing Revolutionary Guards at a nice, satisfying 20:1 ratio, with our air cover turning Tehran into a toasty lesson on why you should be nice to American diplomats. There’s failure and there’s failure, and with better transport this could’ve been a glorious failure instead of a painful (really painful, I remember!) joke.

Suppose the Osprey really isn’t a very safe aircraft. That’s the knock on it, after all. Well, the hard answer here is, so what? It’s a revolutionary advance in exactly the kind of war we actually need to learn how to fight. If that costs a few lives along the way, so be it. The question nobody bothers asking is whether the lives lost on a particular aircraft are worth it or not. So if you have, say, an unsafe carrier-based fighter, then to me that clunker’s not worth one American life, because it’s useless. Its whole existence is a waste of lives and money. But if you have a VTOL special ops transport that gets your guys in and out twice as fast, with no clumsy refueling stops, then it’s worth the lives spent to learn how to make it mechanically reliable. God knows we’ve lost a lot more guys in less worthwhile ways.

Try thinking like the enemy. Would Al Qaeda hesitate if it had a flight of Ospreys that could land near Capitol Hill, even if their head maintenance guys told them that, say, one-third of the planes were going to crash before they got to the target? Nope. If the mission is that important, and the Osprey is designed for exactly the most important missions we’ve got, then you can live with losses.

Besides, I’m not convinced the Osprey’s really that unreliable. There have only been four major crashes, and for such a revolutionary design that’s not bad. Compare that to the really scary record of the F-18 variants we sold to the Aussies: four of the 71 they bought have crashed already, but nobody’s panicking about that.

So why does the Osprey get so much bad-mouthing?

The F-18 after colliding with a bird: "Yeah, but you shoulda seen what that seagull looks like!"

Before you let me answer for you, let’s give you a lesson in thinking hard about hardware. You tell me, why would the Air Force, the Navy and the Army hate a weapons system like this one? Remember, we’re talking about jealous branches of the Armed Services, we’re talking about billions of dollars, we’re talking about a world where an Air Force general takes off his uniform and gets a lobbying job without even blinking. And keep in mind that each one of the Armed Services will do anything to keep from losing money to the others.

I bet you got it by now. The Osprey is a Marine Corps project. This should be the last clue you need: what makes the Corps different from all the other services? Answer: because it has its own air wing, and this USMC air wing is the only American force that’s allowed to operate fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, or mutants like the V-22; all the other services have to stick to one or the other kind of aircraft. The Army is limited by law to helicopters and the Air Force has a monopoly of fixed (or swept-) wing craft. So a plane like the Osprey, that can turn from one to the other in a few seconds, is about as welcome as a sneezing duck on a trans-Pacific flight from Hong Kong.

Defense appropriations are an annual turf war between the services, and the Osprey doesn’t even have any identifiable turf. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a procurement officer’s worst nightmare! It threatens the whole paranoid truce between the three big services about who owns what.

The fact that the V-22 might actually help us fight irregular wars like the ones we actually need to plan for doesn’t figure at all. They’d laugh at you if you brought that up. It’d just prove that "you don’t get it." To them, this is like an advertising campaign. They want to sell programs to Congress so they can buy another condo in Costa Rica.

Congressman plays with an F18 model before voting.

I’ve actually read proud stories of big sales by lobbyists. They actually brag about robbing us. They sold the F-22 Raptor by dazzling Congress with all this Knightrider dashboard crap. The reason they had to switch sales pitches is because they were having a problem using their old approach: the Soviet threat.

Somebody asked the annoying question, "Uh…what Soviets? Didn’t they kinda go outta business?" So the lobbyists actually ran a campaign called "Save the Raptor"—like it was some Sierra Club bird watcher’s PBS documentary call-in show. And, wouldn’t you know it, they saved the Raptor! Nobody knows what the Raptor’s good for, unless all our F-15 squadrons suddenly come under the control of the Hypno-toad and have to be knocked out of the sky by an "even more advanced!" fighter.

They won, the sales pitch worked. Maybe they can even come up with a civilian version of the Raptor, sell one to Ah-nold at a discount, make a killing with the street-racer crowd. It’d probably be pretty good at that. But it sure isn’t any use in a war like Iraq or any other war we’re going to be fighting on this planet.

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Gary Brecher
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