Given the lack of Pentagon orders in next year’s budget, the V-22 tilt-rotor production line is scheduled to shut down in 2026. Their fate illustrates the inbred illusion of the military-industrial complex and its complete lack of error detection.
The V-22 Osprey takes off and lands like a helicopter, but its tilt rotors and engines allow it to fly farther and faster than a regular helicopter. And while the helicopters are high-maintenance, they’re child’s play compared to the complexity of the V-22. The underlying question has always been the same: is it worth squeezing the juice?
The promoters of the program, among them the manufacturer’s Bell and Boeing, maintained that the V-22 would revolutionize military and civil aviation. A Bell-Boeing team helped write a 1991 NASA report calling for the creation of a national network of commercial aircraft based on the V-22 by the year 2000. According to the report, “the world market could demand more than 2,600 tilting helicopters, more than half of which would be exported.” A smaller version of the tiltrotor, abandoned by Bell in 2011, has been in development for 20 years since its first flight. The V-22 is still the only tiltrotor on the market. The Pentagon has purchased 464 V-22s, almost 80% of them for the Marines. The program costs about 56,000 million dollars, 120 million per copy.
One way to reduce that cost would be to get other nations to buy V-22s. There are constant rumors that militaries around the world have been testing tiltrotor tires: Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Canada, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Japan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom have appeared as possible buyers. Military and commercial sales would make each V-22 cheaper, which helped fuel exaggerated sales forecasts.
Following the launch of the V-22 program in 1982, the Pentagon estimated that it would sell between 400 and 600 V-22s to foreign customers. “We’re not talking about hundreds of countries” buying V-22s, the CEO of Textron, which owns Bell, said in 2011. “I think it’s between 10 and 12 countries that are going to buy them.” In 2013, the total number of projected foreign sales had fallen to 100 or less.
Sellers always played their cards near your flight vest. Bell and Boeing said the V-22 had garnered “significant interest” from prospective buyers at the Dubai airshow in 2011, but reports noted it “did not identify them.” The military was just as timid. “In the very near future, we could see quite a bit of growth in the area of foreign military sales,” the Marine who ran the program said in 2013. He reportedly “declined to give details.”
This bogus boom in overseas buyers continued into this decade. “We know that there are, in fact, a number of countries that are looking at the V-22 right now,” a senior V-22 official said in 2020 before declining to name them. You knew things were getting desperate when Bell began selling the V-22 as “VIP transportation” for princes, potentates, and ultra-rich pooh-bahs (no bites yet, perhaps because US presidents can’t fly aboard the V-22 ).
As the V-22 line shrinks, the only foreign sale has been to Japan. Total sales abroad: 17.
What happened to all those customers? They disappeared because the V-22 costs too much and is grounded too often.
The top Marine aviator estimated in 2012 that his cost per hour of flying would settle at around $8,500 in 2012, or about $9,600 in 2020, including inflation. Last November, the Government Accountability Office reported that the cost of flying a V-22 for one hour in 2020 was $43,767, up 21.8% from 2019. It missed its mission capability target in any fiscal year from 2011 to 2021. In 2019, only 52% of the Marine Corps V-22s were ready to fly.
The spark that generated the V-22 was Iran’s failed 1980 rescue mission to rescue 53 US diplomats held captive in Tehran. “The Department of Defense saw a need for an aircraft that could perform long-range, high-speed missions using vertical takeoffs and landings,” the Navy noted in December. Yet when just such a mission arose in 2011, the Pentagon turned to conventional attack-modified UH-60 and CH-47 helicopters deep in Pakistan to bring Osama bin Laden to justice for the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Still, all of that is yesterday’s news.
In December, the Army announced that it would purchase Bell’s V-280 Valor tiltrotor to replace its aging fleet of UH-60 Black Hawks. It is planned to be the Pentagon’s second production tiltrotor after the V-22. The V-280 program could fetch as much as $70 billion; the Army aviation general stated when announcing the deal. That includes, he added, “possible foreign military sales.”