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Commentary

Hopelessly Flawed Osprey Lives to Fly Another Day


     
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Despite the troubled history of the Marine Corps’ V-22 tiltrotor aircraft, Pete Aldridge, Jr., the Bush administration’s new chief weapons buyer, has decided to continue producing the plane at low rates while its design is being fixed. Yet the Osprey is a hopelessly flawed product of a Department of Defense (DoD) that George W. Bush has pledged to reform.

The Osprey takes off and lands like a helicopter but can tilt its propellers and fly as a fixed wing aircraft. The aircraft is designed to transport Marines or their light equipment ashore during an amphibious assault.

The program has endured several crashes, attempts by senior officials of the first Bush and Clinton administrations to kill it, and a scandal involving the alleged falsification of maintenance records to cover up the aircraft’s poor record of reliability. The aircraft fell out of favor with influential officials in prior administrations because of its exorbitant cost. Including research and development cost, each aircraft will cost more than $80 million apiece. The program’s current estimated total cost--$38 billion--has ballooned a whopping $15 billion from the $23 billion originally planned. The program is also 10 years behind schedule.

One would think that with the explosion of costs, schedule delays, and crashes, as well as the scandal, a stake could finally be driven through the beast’s heart. Yet the Osprey lives. The Marine Corps doggedly clings to the view that the aircraft is vital to future amphibious operations, and that cheaper helicopters just won’t do. The Congress has resisted all attempts by officials of prior administrations (including Dick Cheney as secretary of defense) to terminate the aircraft. Recently, pro-Osprey forces rallied to again save the aircraft at a hearing held by Curt Weldon, a congressman from Pennsylvania--where part of the aircraft is produced. And, of course, the defense contractors that make the plane have liberally distributed subcontracts to more than forty states so that such congressional support will be assured.

Tragically, the Osprey is typical of many weapons development programs that the DoD undertakes. Huge cost increases and schedule delays are not uncommon. Other weapons, like the Osprey, are hurried into limited or full production before being thoroughly tested under real world conditions. The reason: The farther along the program can progress in the weapons acquisition process, the harder it is to kill politically. When problems are later uncovered, the entire system or some of its subsystems--for example, the hydraulic lines of the Osprey--have to be redesigned at great cost to the taxpayer. Also, such redesigns can delay programs much longer than the time required to fully test the systems before production. Philip Coyle, former chief weapons tester at the Pentagon, recently estimated that two to three years would be required to fix the hydraulic lines and other problems with the Osprey. It is simply outrageous to waste taxpayer dollars producing flawed versions of a plane (particularly when the flaw has resulted in deaths) while the DoD tries to figure out how to fix the aircraft’s design.

The planned production of Ospreys--like other weapons--has dwindled as costs have increased. Originally, one thousand or more Ospreys were to be purchased. But then the Army pulled out of the program and costs grew. Now, only 460 are planned--360 for the Marine Corps and 100 more for the Navy and Air Force. DoD regularly stuffs too many weapons into its program and then, because of budget constraints, produces them in inefficient quantities. Some of those weapon systems need to be pruned to free up money to produce in more efficient quantities the more worthy systems that remain. The Osprey is a good candidate for the trash heap.

DoD manages the captive defense industry with a combination of socialism (inefficient government-owned facilities compete unfairly with the private sector), industrial policy (so called “competition” rarely lives up to its name), and the erection of high barriers to entry through excessive specifications for weapon systems (which discourages non-defense companies from bringing new methods and products into a stagnant industry). The Osprey is a typical product of the creaking defense acquisition system. If nothing else, killing the Osprey would have sent a message to the Congress, the defense industry, and the defense bureaucracy that George W. Bush was serious about radically transforming the nation''s defenses and was not going to tolerate business as usual. The new president has failed his first test as a defense reformer.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.


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