NAVAL TESTERS BACK MV-22, BUT DOD TO DECIDE SUITABILITY, EFFECTIVENESS

July 11, 2005

Naval operational testers have recommended declaring the Marine Corps' MV-22 Osprey aircraft operationally suitable and effective for military use, meaning it is now up to the Pentagon's operational testing directorate to decide whether to endorse the recommendation.

Bell Helicopter Textron and Boeing are developing the Osprey primarily for the Marine Corps. The aircraft has the capability to take off and land vertically like a helicopter, but also to rotate its nacelles in flight to fly like a plane.

Last month, the MV-22 finished its operational evaluation, which went quite well, according to Pentagon, naval and industry sources. The official results of the testing have not yet been publicly announced, but Inside the Navy has learned the Navy's operational testing command issued a summary report to defense officials June 30.

According to government sources familiar with the report, it recommends declaring the MV-22 operationally suitable and effective and introducing the aircraft to the fleet. The report also cites some deficiencies that must be corrected. For instance, there are issues with certain radios, passenger seat restraints and electronic combat equipment, said a Pentagon source.

The Defense Department's operational testing office has made no final decision yet on whether to declare the MV-22 operationally suitable and effective. But in the Pentagon and among program proponents, it is considered likely that DOD will support such a declaration, based on positive data from the recent testing. The DOD testing office is working on a report that would promulgate its decisions on the MV-22. Even if the DOD office gives the program the green light, it might direct program officials to fix certain deficiencies and verify the solutions before the Osprey's first deployment.

If the Pentagon declares the MV-22 operationally suitable and effective it will mark a change from 2000, when Philip Coyle, then the head of the DOD operational testing directorate, found the Osprey "not operationally suitable," primarily due to concerns about the aircraft's reliability, maintainability, availability and interoperability.

The Marine Corps' Osprey test squadron, VMX-22, plans to brief reporters on the latest operational evaluation (OPEVAL) this week at the Marine air base in New River, NC.

In the court of public opinion, the program is in a bit of an awkward position because in November 2000 naval testers similarly declared the aircraft operationally suitable and effective -- but those claims turned out to be hollow. Naval testers made that declaration despite a fatal Osprey crash in April of that year. Then came Coyle's findings. Finally, just as the Navy was poised to approve a full-rate production decision for the aircraft, a second fatal crash happened in December 2000. The program was then put on ice, reviewed and ultimately restructured.

At this week's media briefing, naval officials will likely compare and contrast data from the two OPEVALs, trying to make the case that this time is different, that improvements in the aircraft and the overall program have led to better operational testing results.

The Air Force version of the Osprey, called the CV-22, is scheduled to undergo a separate operational testing phase late next year. -- Christopher J. Castelli