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Transformational

Spring MEU deployment marks new era for MV-22

By Dan Lamothe, Marine Corps Times

Reprinted with permission
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Osprey

Navy Visual News Service Photo by Seaman Kelvin Edwards

The winter night was colder than Chesty Puller eyeing an enemy in a foxhole, but there was work to be done.

Two insurgent leaders were expected to meet Jan. 14, 2009 on an open green at Fork Union Military Academy. A reconnaissance team with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit was ready, a sniper in position on the roof of a school building awaiting the order to take out the enemy.

A single shot exploded through the night, echoing across the academy’s campus and signaling a successful kill. A team of eight Marines burst onto the central Virginia school’s quad from their concealed position, students gawking from their dorm windows as Marines in full battle rattle swarmed a pitch-dark soccer field for aerial extraction.

In years past, it likely would have been a CH-46 Sea Knight that picked up the Marines during the Realistic Urban Training exercise. This time, though, an MV-22 Osprey glided in, green lights illuminating its tiltrotors, as neighbors pointed and gasped. In the blink of an eye, the Marines boarded in the middle of suburbia, and the aircraft disappeared into the night.

The exercise, conducted while the 22nd MEU was training in January at Fort Pickett, Va., signals a turning point in Marine history.

Ten Ospreys are expected to deploy this spring (2009) with the 22nd MEU aboard the Bataan amphibious assault ship, marking the first time the MV-22 will be the main aviation element with a MEU. The planned deployment to the Central Command area of operations will put the birds, assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 263 (reinforced), in position to carry out everything from ship-to-shore missions to counter-piracy ops.

“We’re treading new ground here and writing some of the lessons learned that everybody else will benefit from,” said Col. Gareth Brandl, 22nd MEU commander. “Just the basic configuration of the aircraft requires you to take a look at how you store them on board, how you put them in the hangar deck, how much additional space they may take [and] the equipment that comes along with the maintenance of those aircraft.”

Osprey

USMC Photo by Cpl. Theodore Ritchie

An Osprey squadron also is expected to deploy for the first time this spring to Afghanistan, where the tiltrotor’s added speed and range are “made for Afghanistan,” Commandant Gen. James Conway said in a Jan. 23 interview. With the pending drawdown of Marines in Iraq, the Osprey squadron currently there, VMM-266, is expected to be the last. This will free up additional tiltrotor aircraft for other assignments in the future.

Osprey in transition

The plan to put Ospreys on Navy ships is not new. When the tiltrotor aircraft was first conceived in the 1980s, it was identified by the Corps as the likely successor to the CH-46 Sea Knight, the medium-lift, tandem-rotor helicopter that has been a mainstay of troop transport since before the Vietnam War.

Faced with a rocky early history that included at least three fatal crashes, the Osprey never made it out with a MEU — part of the initial plan. By September 2007, though, it was cleared hot for deployment, with VMM-263, based at Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C., working successfully for seven months from Al Asad Air Base, Iraq. Three additional deployments followed, including VMM-266’s current work in Iraq.

With the CH-46’s airframe aging, the Corps is beginning to roll out MEU squadrons built around the Osprey. The dozen CH-46s that once served as the focal point for the MEU’s medium-lift needs will be replaced with 10 Ospreys. Other elements will remain the same, with four CH-53 Sea Stallions providing heavy lift, four AH-1W Super Cobra gunships and two UH-1N Hueys providing close-air support and six AV-8B Harrier jets offering powerful close-air and air-to-air support.

Osprey

Navy Visual News Service Photo by Seaman Ryan Steinhour

The squadron has been training to land on ships in a variety of ways, said Capt. Justin McKinney, an Osprey pilot who deployed in 2007 to Iraq with VMM-263 and is preparing to deploy with the MEU.

In early rounds of training, pilots land on areas of land-based runway marked to resemble amphib flight decks. In the past year, crews with VMM-263 have stepped up the training and flown Ospreys to Navy ships off the coast of Boston, New River and Jacksonville, Fla., to qualify for sea-based landings as flight decks were available, McKinney said.

Overall, the move changes the game for the MEU, offering faster ship-to-shore maneuvers and deeper amphibious raids. Not only can they go farther, faster, they also pack more punch — 240 Marines in 10 Ospreys, versus 144 in a dozen Sea Knights.

“We’ll be expected to conduct all the same kind of missions that all the other [MEU squadrons do] … but we’re obviously looking at a few evolutionary kind of things that will occur utilizing the V-22,” said Lt. Col. Paul Ryan, commander of VMM-263 (reinforced). “Our ability to mass forces should be significantly greater than what we were capable of with the [Sea Knight].”

Brandl said adding Ospreys to the MEU has meant considering everything from new traffic patterns to how the MEU’s capabilities have been changed. In Iraq, they mostly work independently of other aircraft, but with a MEU, they’ll be integrated with other aircraft daily, he said.

“Even when you are just [doing] sustainment training [and] deck landing qualifications, you have to figure out how you’re [going to] integrate those other pieces of the [Aviation Combat Element],” Brandl said.

Some of the other differences are more obvious. The Osprey can cruise at speeds of about 276 mph, about 120 mph faster than the Sea Knight, and carry about 3,000 pounds more than the CH-46 (14,360 when lifting off vertically).

“The fundamental difference is to not look at this aircraft as a helicopter, but an airplane,” Brandl said of the Osprey. “It has a lot of the same capabilities as an airplane and in fact, it’s a lot faster than our rotary-wing aircraft. That’s one of the other challenges we have: how to integrate the rotary-wing aircraft with this aircraft as we go into an objective area.”

Typically, Cobras and Hueys fly with the CH-46, providing necessary firepower. They will still fly with the Osprey in many situations, but there also will be longer-range missions in which the Harrier may be needed to support the Osprey because the helicopters can’t keep up, officials said.

Four-blade Cobras and Hueys that will be able to keep up better are in development, but will not be available for this deployment.

Suited for counter-piracy ops

Osprey

USMC Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jeremy Grisham

In Iraq, the Osprey has been used primarily as a means to quickly shuttle Marines, Iraqi officials and U.S. military leaders across the country, rarely landing in “hot” areas. That might not always be the case, especially when it comes to MEU ops.

While the Corps has “received no taskings” to date in counter-piracy, Conway said it is “well within the capacity and workup of any Marine Expeditionary Unit that goes to sea” and that the Osprey would be a “wonderful platform” to assist in it.

Currently, a nine-member scout sniper team with the 26th MEU aboard the amphibious transport dock San Antonio is working with the U.S.’s counter-piracy unit, Combined Task Force 151, operating from the ship and on helicopters to provide supporting firepower. But the heat could be turned way up, Conway said.

“I don’t think the pirates would be a viable force on the ground if we went into their camps, and certainly they can’t stand up if pressed by the ships of the United States Navy and the aircraft associated with them,” Conway said. “If you simply land in the face of those camps, I think you’ll see [the pirates] scatter to the mountains, and you won’t see them again. (Feb. 2009)