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Shoot down the V-22

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Once again, the Marine Corps has suffered a tragic accident with its new V-22 Osprey, with four Marines having been killed recently on a routine testing mission. In April, a V-22 crash killed 19 Marines.

These tragedies make what was an imminent decision on producing the aircraft a serious political question. The Marines have appropriately asked for production to be delayed. Inappropriately, however, the Marines are still hell-bent on acquiring the tilt-rotor aircraft. Given the Osprey's history of problems, the Marines should instead be calling for its cancellation.

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Thirty Marines have died in four Osprey crashes since 1991. The two aircraft that crashed this year were from an initial batch of 10 delivered to the Marines earlier in the year. This 20 percent failure rate is an unacceptable risk to our armed forces and makes the plane unusable. The aircraft may be too hard to fly -- the pilot of the recent mishap was the best V-22 pilot in the corps -- or mechanically faulty. Whether pilot error or mechanical, the Osprey is a death-trap.

Calls for the V-22's cancellation are not new. In 1989, Dick Cheney, then secretary of defense, now vice president-elect, tried to terminate the program because of rising costs and only incremental improvements in its capabilities compared with the helicopters it would replace.

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Three years later, Congress put money back into the program and threatened Mr. Cheney with a lawsuit if he tried to kill it again. Bill Clinton, then running for president, campaigned to restore the Osprey's funding. Now the United States is on the verge of acquiring an aircraft that should have been terminated more than a decade ago.

Will the incoming Bush administration attempt to kill the program? Not likely, since Pentagon programs on the eve of production rarely get canceled.

The Marines are adamant about the need for the aircraft because losing it would force the corps to rethink its entire future operational strategy. Also, the powerful congressional delegations of Pennsylvania and Texas, where the Osprey is built, will stop at nothing to protect the money and jobs this program brings to their districts and states.

Moreover, members of Congress score no political points for going after a weapon coveted by one of the military services, and they open themselves to retaliatory attacks on projects in their district or state. Something lost, nothing gained. What this means is that once Congress starts funding military procurement programs, they become immutable.

So the United States ends up with deadly boondoggles like the Osprey.

At $83 million apiece, the aircraft offers only limited operational improvements over the Marine's current transport helicopters. In fact, the Pentagon's director of operational testing and evaluation, Phillip Coyle, recently criticized the V-22 as being "operationally not suitable." The aircraft, Mr. Coyle noted, can successfully complete its mission only 57 percent of the time. No matter what advantages the craft may have over current transport helicopters, if it fails 43 percent of the time, it is entirely unreliable for military operations.

The Marines have planned on getting the Osprey for so long that they will have a difficult time conceiving how they can live without it. Additionally, since the V-22 is one of the few weapons designed especially for the Marines, they see the program's procurement as a matter of pride and autonomy.

But such considerations should not lead to the purchase of the aircraft. Rather, it should be an objective assessment of the plane's cost related to its capabilities, and its safety. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case with the Osprey.

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Delivering Marines faster and farther does not improve U.S. national security or military capability if those brave troops die on the way to the battlefield. The Marines need new transport aircraft; that much is true. But they do not need this one.

The Marines were right to postpone the production decision and ground all V-22 flights. Now they need to take the next step and cancel the program. Otherwise, more Marines could tragically and unnecessarily die.

Luke Warren is the media director and an analyst with the Council for a Livable World Education Fund in Washington.


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