November 15, 2016:
With the growing use of special operations forces there is more need to keep these small but vital missions supplied. This has had some interesting side effects. For example the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor transports continue having problems with high operating costs and too many updates and modifications. Yet the V-22 has become too useful to drop, especially when it comes to supporting special operations forces. An example of that is the development of a palletized aerial refueling system that quickly enables the U.S. Marine Corps MV-22B to become an aerial refueling aircraft. This VARS (V-22 Aerial Refueling System) is useful in many situations for refueling transports, fighters (F-18 and F-34), larger UAVs and, increasingly, special operations helicopters. The refueling system won’t be in service until 2018 and will involve taking advantage of the V-22 rear cargo door because that makes it easy to roll a pallet on or off. The VARS is mounted on cargo pallets and setting up (or removing) VARS in a V-22 takes a few hours.
Accessories like VARS makes it easier for the U.S. Department of Defense wants to justify its plans buy 408 of the V-22s, most of them as MV-22s for the marines. A smaller number of CV-22s are going to SOCOM. So far 290 V-22s have been built but the marines are having second thoughts about buying more because of the escalating costs for maintaining them. Problems keep showing up that cost more money to deal with, especially when the V-22s are used under combat conditions in hot and dry (as in dusty) conditions.
In 2012 the marines began receiving the new "Block C" version of the MV-22. This one has better weather radar, improved cabin climate control, better anti-missile defenses, and flat screen displays in the cockpit and cabin that show what external cameras see from different positions on the exterior of the aircraft (improved situational awareness). All this is important for an aircraft that takes off and lands like a helicopter, then speeds away like a fixed wing aircraft. This speed has proved to be very useful in combat, as it is more than 120 kilometers an hour faster than the helicopters the V-22 replaces. Block C helped with brownout but did not eliminate all the brownout risk.
The SOCOM (Special Operations Command) CV-22 differs from the MV-22 in having larger fuel capacity and terrain following radar for night missions as well as electronic defenses. Since it entered service in 2007 V-22s have flown over 200,000 hours.
While users of the V-22 are happy with their unique hybrid, the accountants are less pleased. Since 2009, users have been struggling to increase V-22 readiness (ready for action) rate from 50-60 percent to the 82 percent that the manufacturer had originally promised. The problem is that, despite being a wonderful feat of engineering that is now proved itself capable of serving in a combat zone, the V-22 is mechanically very complex and expensive, as well as being difficult to keep operational. The V-22 has had lots of trouble with costs and reliability even though it has been flying since 1988.
Since the V-22 entered service the estimated lifetime cost of operating the aircraft has increased 64 percent to $121.5 billion. Although the major user (the U.S. Marine Corps) has had an excellent safety and reliability record, despite the brownout problem, the MV-22s are very expensive compared to the helicopters they replaced. This is especially true when it comes to operating and maintenance expenses. In response to this, the marines are seeking to buy 200 CH-53K helicopters. These are slower (315 kilometers an hour) but carry more, are more reliable, and cheaper to operate.
The MV-22s used by the marines can carry 24 troops 700 kilometers (vertical take-off on a ship, level flight, landing, and return) at 390 kilometers an hour. The V-22 is replacing the CH-46E helicopter, which can carry 12 troops 350 kilometers at a speed of 135 kilometers an hour. The V-22 can carry a 4.5 ton external sling load 135 kilometers, while the CH-46E can carry 1.4 tons only 90 kilometers. The marines are using the faster speed of the V-22s to reach the enemy in a more timely fashion, and run more flights, than a helicopter, in the same time. The V-22 also operates better at the higher altitudes encountered in Afghanistan but much of Afghanistan (and other areas popular with Islamic terrorists) is hot and dusty and that reduced V-22 reliability in increases maintenance costs. All this has made V-22s especially useful for SOCOM operations and the sort of jobs the marines see themselves getting in the near future.