Thirty-two years ago, the secretary of the Navy, the commandant of the Marine Corps and chief of naval operations had to decide on a replacement for the old Vietnam-era CH-46 helicopter, the heavy-lift workhorse of Navy fleet replenishment and Marine air assault.
The options were a new twin-rotor such as the Sea Knight, or an entirely new tilt-rotor technology that had been developed and flown by NASA. We established a blue-ribbon panel of the top aeronautical engineers and operators, chaired by Hans Mark, former secretary of the Air Force. The unanimous conclusion of the panel was that the tilt-rotor was the way to go.
It was an aircraft designed specifically for survivability. In combat, on lifesaving search-and-rescue missions, performing humanitarian airlifts or moving troops and equipment, the tilt-rotor could fly faster, higher and further. It took off and landed like a helicopter but cruised at twice the speed of any helicopter. It provided the capability to do many new missions, but most importantly, was much less vulnerable to groundfire and could save thousands of lives in combat. After careful engineering evaluation and risk analysis by the Navy, we committed to the program and the secretary of defense signed the decision document in 1983.
A joint team of contractors from Boeing and Bell was chosen to develop the airplane after Sikorsky showed no interest. A very tight contract was negotiated to develop the aircraft as a team and then to compete each year for production, with the lowest bidder being awarded the larger number and high-priced bidder a smaller number, thus keeping a constant pressure and incentive to improve productivity and reduce cost.
The program proceeded very well until the Bush administration took office in 1989. As part of a sweeping defense review led by the defense bureaucracy, new Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney signed off on its recommendation to de-emphasize naval aviation and to kill all new Navy and Marine aircraft programs except the F-18. Thus, the Osprey was canceled, along with the A-12, A-6F Intruder, F-14D Tomcat, P-8 and ES-3B, leaving the Navy with only one aircraft program for the first time in its history.
Congress, to say the least, was perplexed. After extensive hearings and testimony, Congress directed the continuation of the program now called the V-22 Osprey. There followed then for the remainder of the Bush administration a tragicomedy, in which the Pentagon would kill the Osprey each year, and Congress would direct its resuscitation. Needless to say, this created havoc in the program office and at Boeing and Bell. That mulish behavior by the Pentagon, refusing to accept that Congress has a constitutional right to make such decisions, delayed the Osprey by at least 10 years and more than doubled the price.
Today, after years of distinguished service on a diverse range of missions, the V-22 has earned a stellar safety record and proven its mettle time and again. Never has this been more obvious than during 2013, which truly was the Year of the Osprey.
As a humanitarian asset, the Osprey has become a key element of international relief efforts. Following Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines last November, V-22s have been carrying supplies and ferrying people to and from remote areas, working 24/7 from both land and sea bases. The news media, Philippine government and nongovernmental organizations have heralded the V-22 as a game-changing asset in around-the clock relief operations.
Rescue and extraction is a key mission for the Osprey, and nowhere has it performed better than in Sudan last December, when three V-22s sent to rescue Americans were subjected to heavy groundfire. The cutting-edge composites and design of this remarkable aircraft ensured its survival. All three Ospreys continued flying, carrying four seriously wounded U.S. troops 500 miles to safety.
V-22s are now strategically placed in key locations to ensure the capability for immediate extraction of individuals serving in harm’s way across the Mediterranean, Africa and the Middle East, ensuring that tragedies like Benghazi will not happen again.
Combat was always a primary mission for the V-22, and 2013 has seen Ospreys continuing to perform remarkably in Afghanistan. More operationally efficient than helicopters, the Osprey has more than 200,000 flight hours while executing thousands of missions in harsh environments and terrain, such as Afghanistan. On the home front, because of their unique safety and survivability, V-22s have joined the presidential fleet.
Over the years, the V-22 Osprey has evolved into a game-changing asset that ensures the U.S. succeeds and prevails in the hardest, most challenging missions. Indeed, 2013 saw the V-22 come into its prime, flawlessly performing missions across the globe while serving as a standard-bearer of freedom, projecting U.S. power, compassion and innovation.
John Lehman is a former secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and served as a member of the 9/11 Commission. He has no relationship with any contractor mentioned in this article.