USA — The U.S. Marine Corps is consigning its entire West Coast-based inventory of 114 old mid-sized helicopters to the scrap heap. Their replacements, a fleet of 120 $93.4 million-dollar MV-22 Ospreys, are technological marvels that, by rotating two turboprop engines, can fly like airplanes or hover like helicopters.
The first of the new Ospreys arrived at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar last week. Soon, these hybrid aircraft will begin training and become a regular presence in the local skies.
But military helicopters do more than just train for war. In California, military copters support local authorities during big earthquakes, enormous firestorms or other major emergencies. And as tired Vietnam-era CH-46E Sea Knights and local CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters disappear, the Marine Corps, with their new Ospreys, may be less able to lend a hand to the home front.
Why? The Osprey is a highly specialized war-fighter. In Iraq, Marines gloated that the speedy MV-22 transformed the battlefield, shrinking a battle space the size of Texas to the size of Rhode Island. In Afghanistan, the Osprey is facing a gritty expeditionary battlefield and doing a serviceable job.
But in coastal California, the MV-22 Osprey transforms itself into an enormous unknown for firefighters and other first responders.
Designed for the Cold War, before Homeland Security emerged as a Defense Department priority, the Osprey risks leaving gritty first responders in the lurch, wishing the Marine Corps had passed up the Osprey for a few extra “old school” helicopters.
Take wildfire fighting. At first glance, the Osprey seems a firefighter’s friend, outclassing every Marine Corps helicopter currently certified to drop water upon fires. Boasting a planned external hauling capacity of up to 15,000 pounds, the MV-22 can, in theory, carry a lot of water to the fire line.
Yet the Osprey has never bombed a single fire.
Camp Pendleton —- the sprawling Southern California Marine Corps base —- is regularly hit by wildfires. But the new helicopter-plane has gone oddly AWOL in California’s firefight.
After more than two decades of development, the failure to evaluate the Osprey for firefighting and other homeland support roles is inexplicable.
In fact, wildfire fighting may be an unsuitable mission for the Osprey. Powerful rotor wash from the Osprey’s two Rolls-Royce engines is far stronger than the wash from conventional helicopters. During a water drop, all the extra downward-shooting air can fuel the forest fire and do far more harm than good.
This downdraft is strong. Earlier last year, downdraft from a low-flying Osprey toppled trees, collapsed sheds, and tossed deck furniture across a quiet Kentucky neighborhood. Local Marine planners even warn that Osprey rotor wash during landing, take-offs and hovering risks destroying unrecorded archaeological sites in Marine Corps training areas.
Even worse, the Osprey’s powerful engines run hot —- so hot the Navy is scrambling to keep the super-heated exhaust from melting warship landing platforms.
Super-heated exhaust makes off-tarmac operations in California’s tinder-dry backcountry unwise. Ospreys are known to occasionally scorch their landing zones. Last June, superheated exhaust, igniting foliage after an accident Marines wryly described as an “unscheduled” Osprey landing, sparked a five-acre wildfire in soggy North Carolina swampland.
The environmental impact study written to guide West Coast Osprey deployments cautions that “there is some uncertainty as to risk of fire associated with MV-22 operations” in fire-prone California. Marines acknowledge the potential hazard, insisting the Osprey will always use exhaust deflectors or land in one of a handful of well-groomed landing spots at Camp Pendleton and Miramar air base. That cannot be guaranteed.
The Marine Corps promises to detail the frequency of wildfires ignited during Osprey training operations. But after a squadron commander admitted to falsifying Osprey maintenance records in 2001, the program suffers a credibility gap.
Even today, in the environmental impact study, the Marine Corps presented data suggesting the Osprey had not suffered a severe mishap since December 2000. This is untrue. Official Navy safety data reveals the Osprey suffered at least two severe Class A mishaps in March 2006 and November 2007. Engine fires, an acute concern for any wildfire-prone region, occur even more frequently.
Denied good data on the Osprey’s firefighting capabilities and operational limitations, local first responders will have little opportunity to mobilize extra wildfire resources.
The Marine Corps is forgetting that American security is won both at home and abroad. If the new Osprey can’t help fight California’s tough wildfire battles, it may be wise for the Department of Defense to forgo these fancy helicopter-planes that U.S. Marines want and purchase the cheap old-fashioned helicopters America needs.
Craig Hooper is an Oakland resident and a lecturer for the National Department of Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.