By Ethan Rosenkranz
A marine and his dog fast rope from a MV-22 Osprey during a training operation.
A pair of recent Department of Defense (DoD) Inspector General (IG) reports have raised serious questions about the safety and readiness of Marine Corps V-22 Ospreys. The V-22 is a tilt-rotor transport aircraft that takes off and lands like a helicopter but flies like an airplane, and is used by the Marine Corps and Air Force.
Last October, the DoD IG issued a report that assessed the accuracy of V-22 readiness reports, which are prepared by operations personnel in order to ensure that the aircraft are mechanically ready to fly. An unclassified summary of the IG report found that Marine Corps squadron commanders “submitted incomplete or inaccurate readiness reports” for the Osprey during Fiscal Years 2009-2011. The IG explained that these problems resulted from poor training and a lack of verification by squadron commanders of the accuracy of said readiness reports.
Ultimately, due to this incomplete and inaccurate information, the IG concluded that “senior DoD and Marine Corps officials could have deployed MV-22 squadrons that were not prepared for missions.”
This is especially disconcerting given the V-22’s long and troubled accident record. During development and testing of the tilt-rotor aircraft, the V-22 experienced four major accidents resulting in the deaths of 30 individuals. This led then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney to nearly cancel the program during the first Bush Administration.
Even more disconcerting, though, is the fact that the military services have a history of blaming V-22 crashes on the pilots themselves instead of the dangerous (and perhaps unready) aircraft that they fly.
One infamous incident occurred in 2000, when a V-22 loaded full of passengers crashed under dangerous flight conditions. Nineteen Marines lost their lives. Following the crash, military investigators concluded that the pilots were not at fault. However, a Marine Corps press release asserted that it was the pilots who caused the aircraft to crash.
For years, these pilots’ widows, joined by Representative Walter Jones (R-NC) and other Members of Congress, have urged the Marine Corps to correct the record and remove any suspicion of pilot error as the cause of the 2000 crash. To this day, the Marine Corps refuses.
Last October’s DoD IG report examined readiness reports from Fiscal Years 2009-2011. A year after those reports were prepared, in 2012, another V-22 crashed, this time during a military exercise in Morocco. Two Marines were killed and two others were severely injured. And yet again, the Marine Corps blamed pilot error for the Osprey crash.
Further troubling evidence about the safety of the V-22 aircraft has also come to light in a previously unreleased DoD IG audit from October 2012 that was obtained by Inside Defense through a Freedom of Information Act request. This audit found that the Navy and Marine Corps failed to install commonsense safety devices on many different types of aircraft, including the V-22. The lack of these safety devices potentially contributed to five accidents that killed thirteen people and caused the loss of almost $300 million worth of military hardware.
In the case of the V-22, the audit found that the Marine Corps failed to install a collision-avoidance system, which helps the Osprey avoid mid-air collisions with other aircraft. According to the 2012 DoD IG report, a V-22 advisory council listed installing the collision-avoidance system as its second highest priority during Fiscal Years 2009-2011, the time period that DoD IG auditors examined.
The audit report noted that, “Fleet hazard reports have documented at least 10 near-mid-air collisions thus far involving MV-22s.” A Navy spokesperson, James O’Donnell, acknowledged that the Air Force has already installed Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems on their versions of the V-22, and stated that the Marine Corps is planning on testing the Air Force’s collision avoidance system on its V-22s sometime in early 2015.
In light of these recent DoD IG reports, and given the Marine Corps’ proclivity toward blaming V-22 crashes on pilot error, perhaps the service should withhold judgment until it can verify the readiness and safety of V-22s flown in recent years.
POGO has long been concerned about the safety of the V-22. Besides the issue of unreliable readiness reports and the fact that the Marine Corps has neglected to install required safety devices, there are a number of problems with the V-22, which can be traced back to its hybrid tilt-rotor design. Tom Christie, the Pentagon’s former Director of Test and Evaluation, told POGO that, “the V-22 has a fundamental design problem that pilots have to work around, and that problem has existed since day one.”
Clearly, these aircraft should never have been purchased without resolving design problems and safety hazards. But now that the Marine Corps has the Osprey in its fleet, it must do everything possible to ensure the safety and readiness of these aircraft. This includes, but is not limited to, ensuring that military personnel provide accurate and reliable readiness reports in advance of deployment and that requisite safety devices, such as the Traffic Collision Avoidance System, are installed.