V-22 Osprey: A Flying Shame

After an investment of $20 billion, the V-22 Osprey arrives in Iraq to make its combat debut — lacking both firepower and the ability to land safely. A TIME investigation

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Ted Carlson / Check Six

A V-22 flies over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina.

It's hard to imagine an American weapons program so fraught with problems that Dick Cheney would try repeatedly to cancel it--hard, that is, until you get to know the Osprey. As Defense Secretary under George H.W. Bush, Cheney tried four times to kill the Marine Corps's ungainly tilt-rotor aircraft. Four times he failed. Cheney found the arguments for the combat troop carrier unpersuasive and its problems irredeemable. "Given the risk we face from a military standpoint, given the areas where we think the priorities ought to be, the V-22 is not at the top of the list," he told a Senate committee in 1989. "It came out at the bottom of the list, and for that reason, I decided to terminate it." But the Osprey proved impossible to kill, thanks to lawmakers who rescued it from Cheney's ax time and again because of the home-district money that came with it--and to the irresistible notion that American engineers had found a way to improve on another great aviation breakthrough, the helicopter.

Now the aircraft that flies like an airplane but takes off and lands like a chopper is about to make its combat debut in Iraq. It has been a long, strange trip: the V-22 has been 25 years in development, more than twice as long as the Apollo program that put men on the moon. V-22 crashes have claimed the lives of 30 men--10 times the lunar program's toll--all before the plane has seen combat. The Pentagon has put $20 billion into the Osprey and expects to spend an additional $35 billion before the program is finished. In exchange, the Marines, Navy and Air Force will get 458 aircraft, averaging $119 million per copy.

The saga of the V-22--the battles over its future on Capitol Hill, a performance record that is spotty at best, a long determined quest by the Marines to get what they wanted--demonstrates how Washington works (or, rather, doesn't). It exposes the compromises that are made when narrow interests collide with common sense. It is a tale that shows how the system fails at its most significant task, by placing in jeopardy those we count on to protect us. For even at a stratospheric price, the V-22 is going into combat shorthanded. As a result of decisions the Marine Corps made over the past decade, the aircraft lacks a heavy-duty, forward-mounted machine gun to lay down suppressing fire against forces that will surely try to shoot it down. And if the plane's two engines are disabled by enemy fire or mechanical trouble while it's hovering, the V-22 lacks a helicopter's ability to coast roughly to the ground--something that often saved lives in Vietnam. In 2002 the Marines abandoned the requirement that the planes be capable of autorotating (as the maneuver is called), with unpowered but spinning helicopter blades slowly letting the aircraft land safely. That decision, a top Pentagon aviation consultant wrote in a confidential 2003 report obtained by Time, is "unconscionable" for a wartime aircraft. "When everything goes wrong, as it often does in a combat environment," he said, "autorotation is all a helicopter pilot has to save his and his passengers' lives."

The Plane That Wouldn't Die

In many ways, the V-22 is a classic example of how large weapons systems have been built in the U.S. since Dwight Eisenhower warned in 1961 of the "unwarranted influence" of "the military-industrial complex." The Osprey has taken years to design, build, test and bring to the field. All that time meant plenty of money for its prime contractors, Bell Helicopter and the Boeing Co. As the plane took shape and costs increased, some of its missions were shelved or sidelined. And yet, with the U.S. spending almost $500 billion a year on defense--not counting the nearly $200 billion annually for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan--there's plenty of money for marginal or unnecessary programs. Pentagon reform and efficiency are far less of a cause among lawmakers today than during the years of Ronald Reagan's comparatively modest defense-spending boom. "Almost every program the U.S. military is now buying takes longer to develop, costs more than predicted and usually doesn't meet the original specifications and requirements," says Gordon Adams, who oversaw military spending for the Office of Management and Budget during Bill Clinton's Administration.

The Marine Corps likes to boast that it spends only a nickel out of every Pentagon dollar and makes do with cheaper weapons than the other services. The story of the V-22 belies that image: it's a tale of how a military service with little experience overseeing aircraft programs has wound up with a plane that may be as notable for its shortcomings as for its technological advances.

First, some history. Because Marines deploy aboard ships, the service's chiefs have always hungered for vertical lift--aircraft that could take off and land from small decks and fly far inland to drop off combat-ready troops. As the Marines' Vietnam-era CH-46 choppers became obsolete, commanders started to dream of an aircraft that would give them more options when considering an amphibious assault. The dreams intensified following the failed Desert One mission in 1980 to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran. In the course of the operation, three helicopters broke down, leading to an order to abort the entire endeavor, and a fourth chopper collided with a C-130 aircraft at a desert base, killing eight U.S. troops. That sent Pentagon bureaucrats hunting for a transport that could be used by all four military services and prevent another fiasco. Reagan, who took office the year after Desert One, began to pour money into the Pentagon, particularly for research and design into new weapons and combat systems. The Osprey was born.

Originally, the program was designed to churn out the first of more than 1,000 tilt-rotors in less than 10 years for $40 million each. But this was no conventional plane. The Osprey may cruise like an airplane, but it takes off and lands vertically like a helicopter. The technical challenge of rotating an airplane's wings and engines in midair led to delays, which in turn led to an ever higher price tag. As expenses rose, the Pentagon cut the number of planes it wanted to buy, which in turn increased the unit price. Citing rising costs, the Army abandoned the project in 1983.

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