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Sun, Jul 06, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Osprey debate in full flight as 2005 deadline approaches

When the US becomes overly committed to a program like this hybrid craft, half helicopter and half airplane, they can end up looking foolish and soldiers can end up dead

By Leslie Wayne  /  NY Times News Service , PATUXENT RIVER NAVAL AIR STATION, MARYLAN

Mechanical failure has been ruled out as a cause of last month's MV-22 Osprey crash that killed 19 Marines and the remaining aircraft in the fleet will resume flying this month, officials announced Monday. Lieutenant General Fred McCorkle, of the US Marine Crops, fields questions during a news conference at the Pentagon, on Monday.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

In the clear summer sky, the V-22 Osprey was showing its stuff. It went backward, zoomed at an angle, hovered close to the ground and then shot straight up into the air. Buck Rogers himself couldn't have created a more dramatic sight: a hybrid craft, half helicopter and half airplane, that danced in the sky and appeared to defy the laws of aerodynamics.

It was exactly the performance the US Marine Corps wanted to show.

After two decades in development, the US Marines, along with the Osprey's contractors, Boeing and the Bell Helicopter subsidiary of Textron, are making their final push to gain Pentagon approval for the Osprey, an aircraft as high in promise as in problems. The government has spent more than US$12 billion so far on the Osprey, which has the notoriety of having suffered three fatal crashes in test flights, leading to the deaths of 30 people, 26 of them Marines.

Still, the US Marines are determined, and they see the Osprey as crucial to their mission in the world.

"It won't be long before everyone wants one of these," said Colonel Daniel Schultz, the V-22 program manager. "It's the promise of the future."

The Osprey, which can take off like a helicopter and fly like a plane, can travel twice as fast and five times as far as the US Marines' current helicopter fleet from the Vietnam era.

But neither the Osprey's razzle-dazzle aerobatics nor the US Marine Corps' doggedness has been able to silence critics, who remain convinced that the Osprey's design is too complicated and inherently flawed. The craft is being pushed into production without adequate testing, they argue, and it is simply too dangerous and too expensive.

"The Marines have a tremendous can-do attitude," said Philip E. Coyle III, a senior adviser at the Center for Defense Information, a military research group in Washington. "But when they're overly committed to a program like this, they can end up looking foolish as well as killing people."

Coyle is a former assistant defense secretary who ran the Pentagon's weapons testing program in the 1990s.

Just last May, the General Accounting Office offered its own criticisms. It said the Osprey program "plans to enter full-rate production without ensuring that the manufacturing processes are mature" and that Osprey production continues with inadequate assessments.

But critics fear that the passion of its supporters and the weight of history will keep moving the project along.

"The Osprey is on the road to recovery, and the proponents are pushing really hard," said Chris Hellman, a director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a research group in Washington. "My problems with the Osprey remain. The V-22 has gotten to the point where so much money has gone into it, it will probably go ahead regardless."

By the end of 2005, the Pentagon will decide whether to ask Congress to finance a combat-ready fleet of 458 Ospreys -- at a projected price of US$48 billion. The bulk of the Ospreys would go to the US Marines, with 98 for the Army Special Forces and the Navy. For the most part, the Osprey is designed for amphibious troop transport and assault.

The Osprey has also received backing from the Bush administration, which is calling for a "low rate" production of 11 test Ospreys annually in the fiscal 2004 Pentagon budget.

Hawking their wares

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