US Navy Expects Its Carrier Onboard Delivery Ospreys to be Fully Operational By 2024

The tilt-rotors will fully replace the old C-2As by 2028, but it's still not clear if they are up to the job.

Bell-Boeing

The U.S. Navy has revealed new details about its schedule to replace the C-2A Greyhound carrier on-board delivery (COD) aircraft with the CMV-22B Osprey tilt-rotor, what bases will host the new aircraft, and their missions. Though serious questions remain about just how well the Osprey is suited to the task, the service says it hopes new aircraft will be fully operational in 2024 and the transition will be complete by 2028.

Navy pilot James Wallace recently shared an awesome in-depth look at what it was like to fly the C-2A Greyhound with The War Zone's Tyler Rogoway, which you can find here.

At present, the Navy is hoping the first CMV-22B units will be operational by 2020 – a year earlier than it had planned in 2016 – and that the type will reach full operational capability four years later, ahead of the C-2A’s official retirement in 2026. The full fleet of 38 Ospreys is slated to take over for the 27 Greyhounds, which will reach the end of their official service lives by 2026, no later than 2028. The service-specific version of the tilt-rotor will have additional fuel and communications gear compared to the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps variants, as well as a public address system in the main cabin. Bell-Boeing concept art for the aircraft does show a very distinct “towel rack” radio antenna along the rear fuselage.

“The increased number of [CMV-22B] aircraft … is needed because the current inventory of C-2A aircraft is not sufficient to meet the mission requirements,” the service explained in a draft environmental assessment it released earlier in January 2018, which USNI News was first to report on. “Facilities and support must be in place and operational at the first main operating base by October 2020 to support the first detachment’s unit level training, which would lead up to deployment.”

This document is focused primarily on the service’s ongoing decision process about where to situate the one planned Fleet Replacement Squadron, or FRS, which will be responsible for training the CMV-22B crews. Since 1994, Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron One Two Zero (VAW-120) has conducted both E-2 Hawkeye and C-2A Greyhound training at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia.

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A US Marine Corps MV-22B Osprey takes off from the aircraft carrier USS George Washington during disaster relief operations in the Philippines in 2013.

VAW-120 has five Greyhounds, in addition to another 12 C-2As at Norfolk that are part of the operational Logistics Support Squadron Four Zero (VRC-40). Logistics Support Squadron Three Zero operates the remaining 10 aircraft from Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego, California, with three of these permanently deployed in Japan to support operations in and around East Asia.

In the environmental assessment the Navy said it did consider consolidating all of its CMV-22B operations at a single base for logistical and cost-saving reasons. However, it determined that this simply would not work given the service’s world-wide demands.

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A C-2A Greyhound from VRC-40 lands on board the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman in 2015.

“Carrier on-board delivery requirements persist on each coast in support of rapid response to international events in Atlantic, Mediterranean, Persian Gulf, and Pacific theaters,” the review explained. “Single siting of Navy V-22 squadrons would diminish rapid response capabilities in a particular theater.”

From locations on each coast, the C-2As provide carrier on-board deliver, or COD, support to the Navy’s supercarriers. The aircraft shuttle personnel, spare parts, mail, and other supplies to and from the ships and bases ashore. It’s an absolutely vital, but often thankless mission, which retired naval aviator and Greyhound pilot James Wallace was kind enough to share candid and granular details about with The War Zone’s own Tyler Rogoway in November 2017.

From Wallace’s description, a replacement for the C-2A, a quirky design Grumman derived from the Hawkeye early warning radar plane in the 1960s, could be a boon to the COD community, as would having a training squadron dedicated to the mission. The Navy’s decision on where to situate the FRS will be an important part of keeping its present plans to replace the Greyhound on track.

The first option the environmental assessment outlines is to put the CMV-22B school house at North Island. This would add an additional 13 aircraft to the site, along with more than 340 additional personnel, not to mention the added air traffic the training mission would bring. Norfolk, not surprisingly, would see a net loss of aircraft and sailors under this plan.

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A map showing the proposed changes to Naval Air Station North Island to accommodate the CMV-22B.

The second possibility would be to situate the unit in Norfolk where VAW-120 is already conducting the COD training. Under this proposed course of action, both the base in Virginia and North Island would see increases in both airframes and personnel.

Both alternatives would involve significant construction to either expand or otherwise modify the existing facilities to accommodate the new aircraft. An annotated map of North Island notes the Navy would need to demolish more than a dozen buildings if it decided to establish the FRS on the base. 

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A map showing the proposed changes to Naval Station Norfolk to accommodate the CMV-22B.

Perhaps more importantly, both sites would need significant repaving and heat treating on aprons and taxiways to handle the hot jet exhaust from the tilt-rotors, which blasts nearly straight down during engine starts and stops and as they maneuver to and from the runway. This will be an issue for the ships the CMV-22B will operate from, too. The cost of the construction at North Island will cost an estimated more than $130 million, while the work at Norfolk would have a price tag of less than $45 million.

Tyler Rogoway

Inside VRC-30's hangar at NAS North Island.

But whatever option the Navy chooses, it expects the FRS to take approximately a decade to establish, which will mark the end of the transition to the CMV-22B from the C-2A. In the meantime, the Marines will be responsible for training the Osprey pilots and crews.

The Navy trainees will join the Marine’s own MV-22B training unit, Marine Medium Tiltrotor Training Squadron Two Zero Four (VMMT-204), situated at Marine Corps Air Station New River in North Carolina. The Center for Naval Aviation Technical Training, also at New River, will serve as the initial pipeline for the service’s CMV-22B maintainers.

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A US Marine Corps MV-22B from VMMT-204 lands at Marine Corps Air Station New River.

Beyond just transitioning aircraft, the review also reiterated the Navy’s understanding that the shift from the C-2 to the CMV-22B will have a broader impact on the COD mission as a whole. The service contends that the tilt-rotor Osprey will be more flexible than the fixed-wing Greyhound and operate from more varied locations ashore.

“Unlike the C-2A, the Navy V-22 would not be tied to runways ashore,” the assessment said. “Because the Navy V-22 can be refueled in the air, it can span vast ocean distances on deployment and achieve its carrier on-board delivery mission despite a paucity of land bases.”

The CMV-22B will be able to land on carriers or other ships in the associated strike group and deliver cargo or passengers at night, as well, something the Navy does not do with the C-2A. Since it won't require the use of a catapult for take offs or arresting gear to land, it will be able to perform its mission even if those systems are not operating, either because the rest of the air wing is not conducting active operations or for some other reason. It will also take less personnel to launch and recover the Ospreys in general.

“It takes about six folks to launch and recover an Osprey," Navy Vice Admiral Mike Shoemaker, the service's top aviation officer noted in 2016. "It would take about 40 or so to man up the ship to bring in the [C-2A] COD."

On top of that, the Osprey will be able to aid in the vertical replenishment mission, as well as act as a shuttle between carriers and other surface combatants. At present, the MH-60R and -S helicopters within the carrier air wings perform these missions, as do other helicopters assigned to other ships. The CMV-22B could eliminate the need for the "hub and spoke" arrangement of distributing cargo and passengers from the COD aircraft to other ships in the strike group.

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An MH-60S from the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt prepared to pick up cargo from the dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Amelia Earhart

The Ospreys have their own sling-load capability which gives it more overall lift capacity than the Greyhound, 10,000 versus 8,500 pounds, and offers additional options for maneuvering large or awkward loads. At least in theory, the tilt-rotors might give the carrier even more flexibility to support non-combat missions, such as non-combatant evacuation operations or disaster relief efforts, as well.

“The Navy V-22 will be able to handle greater cargo weight capacity than the C-2A, fly at comparable speeds and land vertically on carriers and smaller naval surface combatant vessels,” according to the assessment. “These enhanced capabilities will ensure effective and efficient fleet logistics support in any theater.”

Tyler Rogoway

These assertions leave out some critical points, though. The claim that the Ospreys will have “greater cargo weight capacity” than the Greyhounds deftly avoids the criticism that the tilt-rotors might not be able to accommodate the same large and oddly-shaped loads internally, especially enclosed replacement engines for other aircraft. Former C-2 pilot Wallace brought this up specifically when talking about the CMV-22B as a replacement, saying:

I know for their peculiar reasons the Navy wants the V-22 Osprey to do the COD’s job now. I don’t see it. Engines were our primary hauling job and it simply can’t do it, the Osprey doesn't have enough cargo volume in the cabin. We had H-53s in our squadron as an experiment to do our job and it couldn’t do it either. 

This is not a minor issue. Bringing replacement parts, and complete engines in particular, is a critical wartime COD mission since the Navy expects its Hornets, Super Hornets, and forthcoming F-35C Joint Strike Fighters will rack up flight hours during any high-intensity conflict. Though carriers have on-board facilities to perform much of the required maintenance on the carrier air wing's aircraft, getting fresh engines is critical to sustained operations and drastically speeds up the process of getting the jets back flying missions. 

This has been an issue for Marine Corps, as well, since the service has similar needs with regards to the F-35B Joint Strike Fighters on board the Navy's amphibious assault ships. In 2015, the Marines did demonstrate the ability to use an MV-22B to carry modules of the jet's F135 engine on a special skid. The B-model's lift fan, which it uses to land and take off vertically, has to travel separately via sling-load. The Marines and the Navy refined the pallet's design to make loading easier and engine maker Pratt & Whitney delivered the first production version of the system in August 2017.

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Marines and sailors load an F135 engine onto an Osprey during a test in 2015.

But while the arrangement may be workable, it also exposes the engine to its surrounding environment without a protective shroud, and especially to corrosive sea air and salt water spray, during loading and unloading. The palletized load also requires ground crews to remove certain components in order for it to fit inside the Osprey, which maintainers would have to install again before putting the complete engine into an aircraft. The present shipping methods keep entire engines safely inside a container. 

There are concerns about just maneuvering the Ospreys around a carrier's crowded flight deck, too. In 2016, the Marines provided four MV-22Bs for a proof of concept test aboard the USS Carl Vinson. What the Navy found was that the turn-around time for the tilt-rotors might be longer and might hog flight deck space and impede other simultaneous launch and recover operations and other activities. 

The main issue is that the Osprey's engines are inoperable when its main wing and rotor blades are folded, meaning it can't taxi to a parking spot in its most compact configuration. As such, the concept the service employed during the experiment was to load and unload right in one of two designated landing areas, one of which is right at the rear of the flight deck and would prevent any other aircraft from landing. At present, when the Greyhounds touch down on a carrier, crews fold the wings and move off to the side to load and unload, clearing the landing area.

Tyler Rogoway

A C-2A starts up on the ramp at NAS North Island.

The CMV-22B is also not pressurized, limiting its operating altitude, especially with passengers riding in the back. The Osprey can already carry three fewer individuals in its main cabin compared to the Greyhounds.

More importantly, this means bad weather is more likely to limit the tilt-rotor's ability to conduct its long-range resupply mission. The C-2A with its pressurized cabin can simply fly above many storms and other severe weather patterns. This means crews do not have to fly circuitous routes around them, or risk going through them, in order to get to and from the carriers. The Greyhounds also simply fly faster than the Ospreys, which further extends the overall transit times for the tilt-rotors.

In 2015, Navy planned to purchase 10 more V-22 types in total, as well, for a total of 48. It remains to be seen just how well the fleet of less than 40 CMV-22Bs, only a portion of which will be in operational units, will be able to tackle the world-wide COD mission. Of course, this will already be a substantial increase in total airframes assigned to the mission over the existing fleet of C-2As.

In addition, any budgetary considerations that limited the size of the fleet may not be the same hurdle it once was, though, seeing as President Donald Trump and his administration have promised to significantly increase defense spending. As such, it is also possible that the Navy may find it easier to add additional CMV-22Bs to meet the additional demands.

The Navy is fully committed to the replacement plan now, regardless, and has a firm idea of when it expects to make the shift, for better or worse.

Tyler Rogoway

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com