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Doing Routine Tasks Well, 24/7

By Andrew Drwiega, Defence Helicopter Reprinted with permission

Osprey

USMC Photo by Cpl. Theodore Ritchie

The US Marine Corps’ MV-22 Ospreys should now be considered regular aircraft of the line. The ending of VMM-266’s deployment out of Al Asad Air Base in Al Anbar province in western Iraq brings to an end the operational deployment of three tiltrotor squadrons who have flown for 18 consecutive months without mishap from this sprawling centre of aviation activity. The first to deploy was VMM-263 ‘Thunder Chickens’, immediately followed by VMM-162 ‘Golden Eagles’.

Osprey

USMC "Iraq: Freedom Minute" segment discusses Osprey's role in Iraq. Produced by Airman 1st Class Priscilla Christensen

The Marines at Al Asad have had a potent mix of air assets at their disposal. In addition to the Ospreys, there are Cobras and Hueys from HMLA-369 and HMLA-269, CH-53D/Es from HMH-466 and HMH-362, CH-46 Sea Knights from HMM-161 (soon to be the first west coast tiltrotor squadron when it returns to the USA), and last but not least the ‘Dustoff’ UH-60 Black Hawks from C 2/211 Aviation Regiment – a total force upwards of 70 rotorcraft on base. The fixed-wing support is no less potent with F-18s, EA-6 Prowlers and assorted transport aircraft flying constantly in and out of the field.

Fragile calm

The fragile calm that the USMC aviators of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) have experienced since their deployment to Al Anbar province six months ago is now in danger of fracturing once more into bloody violence. During my visit, one of the senior leaders of the Awakening Council, Adil Mashadani, had been arrested by Iraqi government troops backed by US forces, sparking violence in the centre of Baghdad from his Sunni supporters.

Although the US troop surge has been widely hailed in the general media for stabilising the hard-line Sunni-controlled provinces in northern Iraq (many of which were loyal to Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party), insiders credit the formation of the Awakening Councils, composed mainly of former Sunni insurgents, as the driving force behind the relatively rapid subduing of previously hostile cities such as Fallujah and Mosul. The Sunnis could see that their own traditional leaders had sided with US forces (and were in fact being bankrolled by them).

Osprey

USMC Photo by Cpl. Justin Martinez

Now, however, the nearly 100,000-strong membership of the Awakening Councils feels threatened by the largely Shiite dominated military and other security forces. They are not seeing the delivery of promised jobs and with the Iraqi government’s stated aim of disbanding the councils, they are alarmed by the prospect of having little control over their future, after having done badly in the recent elections.

There is no problem with the availability of the V-22 relative to any other aircraft type serving in this kind of environment, even factoring in the usual working-up maintenance issues that affect a new fleet that has been fielded for three six-month tours. Yes, they are still learning – and the maintenance and parts ordering and delivery schedule still need improvement. But what are we comparing them to – CH-47s, CH-46s and CH-53s. How many decades have the Army/Marines had to get this in order – it should be virtually trouble-free by these high expectations.

Just like everyone else during their period here, VMM-266 has conducted raids, aeroscout and battlefield circulation flights and the transfer of supplies and personnel, including VIPs.

Osprey

USMC Photo by Cpl. Theodore Ritchie

On to Afghanistan

When the MV-22s arrive in Afghanistan they will face an altogether harsher operating environment than even Iraq provides. The enemy is more aggressive than they have been used to – the Osprey has been deployed during a ‘quiet’ period in Iraq. The environment is unforgiving – it is well documented that the sand and dust are finer and will cause more problems than before, and the nights are darker, with even night vision aids struggling to operate. The supply chain also is that much longer.

But over the past 18 months of deployment with the US Marines, a hard driving force at the best of times, in one of the toughest operational environments it will be expected to fly in, the V-22 as a capability has been proven. Sure, deployment to Afghanistan looms and that too will further push the airframe, its crews and its maintainers to the very limits of their collective endurance. It will be shot at, like every other aircraft that engages the Taliban.

Osprey

USMC Photo by Cpl. Theodore Ritchie

But it can and should be sent there. Much older and far less capable types have ‘endured’ there (to use the favourite phrase of the previous US administration). The US Marines are there now and will be for some time – and this is their aircraft. They have proven that persistent criticism of the Osprey as an operational platform is truly redundant. Those who still doubt it should now move on. Everyone else has. (June 2009)