CAMP LEATHERNECK, AFGHANISTAN — When a couple of VM-22 Osprey tilt rotors joined a fleet of CH-53 helicopters, dropping out of the predawn darkness Friday in the northern end of the Now Zad valley in Helmand Province to deliver the first of more than 1,000 NATO and Afghan troops, it marked not only the first large assault since President Obama's announcement that the U.S. would be sending more troops here, it also was the first major combat operation for the Osprey.
The Marines are hoping that the operation — a sweep to begin to secure the area around the city of Now Zad dubbed Cobra's Anger — will become a key step toward resuscitating the image of the Osprey, which can take off and land like a helicopter, but in the air can tilt its motors forward to fly like a fixed-wing plane.
"It certainly passed its first big test here with flying colors," said Maj. William Pelletier, a spokesman at the Marine Corp's main base in Afghanistan and Helmand Province, Camp Leatherneck.
The Osprey suffered through a star-crossed development period that took more than 20 years and included several fatal crashes and huge cost overruns. Then, after production models entered service, on its only other combat deployment so far, in Iraq's Anbar Province in 2007 through 2009, the complicated aircraft was panned by the Government Accounting Office and critics in Congress because of various maintenance problems and questions about its performance.
In a report released June 23, the GAO essentially said that it wasn't worth the cost and that its ability to fly at high altitudes and to carry the number of troops it was supposed to with their gear was questionable.
At a hearing on the day the report was released, Rep. Edolphus Towns, a New York Democrat, said: "It has problems in hot weather, it has problems in cold weather, it has problems with sand, it has problems with high altitude, and it has restricted maneuverability. The list of what the Osprey can't do is longer than the list of what it can do."
He then said that the Pentagon should quit buying them, and the GAO urged the Pentagon to look into other options. It declined.
The Marines countered that the aircraft can do extraordinary things because of its speed and range, and that it does better at higher altitudes than critics say.
Afghanistan, with its great distances and challenging terrain — and more likelihood that the aircraft will face combat — could start to make it clear whether the Marines are right and the VM-22 is worth the cost, now more than $120 million each.
"I don't think the Marines have satisfactorily answered that yet," said Richard Whittle, author of the upcoming book 'The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey.' "It's expensive to operate and it's going to take more time and more missions to answer that question, but this deployment will start to fill in some of the blanks on whether it's worth it.
"If it saves lives or somehow wins a battle, maybe people will say that it is," Whittle said. "But I think that to some degree that will always be in the eye of the beholder."
The 10 Ospreys arrived about a month ago and are being flown by Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 261 (VMM-261) of Marine Corps Air Station New River in North Carolina. At first, the crews mainly flew around Helmand to get familiar with the turf. They officially went operational this week, beginning to fly troops and supplies around the province.
If this deployment goes well, it could start to repair the Osprey's tarnished image. The aircraft hasn't suffered a fatal crash since 2000, and the Marines think they're starting to get a handle on the maintenance problems, which in many cases involved shortages of relatively minor parts such as connectors and wiring insulation that had been expected to last longer, and therefore weren't stockpiled.
"The normal reliability and maintainability issues that you see early in ... an aircraft's life cycle, we are seeing right now" said Lt. Col. Rob Freeland, a Pentagon-based officer who deals with supply-chain issues for the Osprey, and is himself an experienced Osprey pilot.
"What makes things get better in naval aviation?" Freeland said. "Time and money and a lot of engineering effort, and we're pulling all three right now, and we have every reason to expect, looking at all the forecasts, that we're going to push through this in the next three to five years.
'By that point we expect that the readiness of the aircraft, which is reliability, maintainability and supply and support, we expect the readiness of the aircraft to match its magical effectiveness, but that comes with time," he said. "It's very natural and that's what we're moving through right now."
Fixes are under way for the problems with parts shortages discovered in the Iraq deployment, he said.
The Marines in Afghanistan charged with keeping them in the air agree.
"With the right parts, these planes will be as reliable as anything out there," said Gunnery Sgt. Jake Korkian, 36, of Fort Worth, Texas, who has worked with the Osprey program since 1996 and is in charge of the squadron's maintenance for the airframe, hydraulics, and other systems.
Among the parts that have to be replaced more often than expected are certain hydraulic lines — which on the Osprey are built of light but expensive and brittle titanium — and clamps for them.
"It's just nuisance stuff, like bushings," he said. "It's nothing major, it's just that these guys don't know what to stock, so you either waste money and build up a stock of stuff you don't need, or you let the supply system learn what it needs, and that's what it's doing right now."
"The next unit that comes out here won't have as many problems as us, and the unit that comes after that won't have as many problems as them," said Korkian
The Osprey squadron mainly has been moving troops and supplies between various bases. In Iraq, this duty led some critics to belittle it as no more than a fabulously expensive flying bus.
The squadron's commander, Lt. Col. Anthony Bianca of Huntsville, Ala., 42, laughed at that, saying it made no sense to criticize the Osprey for taking on its designated role.
"Yes, we're moving people and yes, we're moving supplies, that's what medium lift does," he said.
In Afghanistan, though, where distances can be much greater than Iraq, the additional speed and range it offers will boost what the Marines and other units can do.
For one thing, it will allow them to react to information about the enemy much quicker.
The aircraft is so fast, in fact, that it can sometimes make two trips back and forth in the time it takes a helicopter to make one trip.
That capability came into play Friday in the Now Zad operation, as the aircraft made several trips to deliver troops, Pelletier said.
When planning started on the Osprey's Iraq mission flying out of a base in Anbar Province, that area was the most deadly for U.S. troops. By the time it arrived, though, things had calmed down substantially as the Marines' efforts to form alliances with local sheiks against al Qaida began working. Quickly the area went from being a hot combat zone to one of the safer parts of Iraq.
This time, though, the Osprey is arriving in the hottest combat zone in a war that has been getting tougher rather than easier.
That will be an important difference between the Osprey's two deployments, said Whittle.
"This time, I think it's a little tougher place to operate and the enemy is certainly more active and, I think, more capable than what they faced in Anbar," he said.
Luckily, the Ospreys are getting significantly more armament for this deployment. One of the criticisms of the Osprey early on was that it couldn't defend itself well, as it was equipped with only a light machine gun on the rear ramp and had no defenses that could face forward. At Leatherneck, though, they are being retrofitted with a belly-mounted robotic machine gun and sophisticated targeting optics, all of which retracts into the aircraft before landings.
Also, the 7.62 mm machine gun on the back has been replaced with a much heavier .50-caliber gun.
Other issues that the Osprey has struggled with — its high-altitude performance and issues with de-icing equipment — may not be a challenge this time, as the Marines' turf doesn't include the high mountains, and is mainly desert. The aircraft are expected to perform some special missions in other parts of the country, but mainly will stay in the south.
Rotary-wing aircraft struggle with altitude and heat, and Helmand gets shockingly hot in summer, but Leatherneck sits at about 3,000 feet, and much of the area isn't significantly higher.
Still, the deployment should give a better sense of the Osprey's capabilities, Whittle said.
"The Marines have said after Iraq that they wanted to crawl with the Osprey first, then walk, then run," he said. "Well, maybe in Iraq they crawled with it, and now we'll see in Afghanistan if it's able to walk."
(Price reports for The News & Observer in Raleigh.)
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