27-Jan-2001 Saturday 

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Marine culture possible key to false Osprey data 


WASHINGTON -- Perhaps the strongest tradition associated with the Marine Corps is the determination to complete any mission, no matter how difficult. It is what kept Marines going through the intense fire at Belleau Wood, across the bloody lagoon at Tarawa and in the frozen hell of Chosin.

But in the fight to save the Marines' most important aviation program, the MV-22 Osprey, the honored "take-the-hill" tradition may have driven one officer, and perhaps some of his superiors, to violate two other cherished elements of the Corps' ethos: a strong code of integrity and a leader's obligation to take care of the Marines under his command.

"No program is important enough to lie or to risk Marines' lives," said a retired Marine general who had championed the Osprey while in uniform.

At the heart of the controversy are allegations that the commander of the Osprey training squadron told his Marines to falsify maintenance records to ensure production of the controversial aircraft. The accusations leveled at Lt. Col. Odin F. Leberman have shaken the Corps and further threatened a troubled program.

Current and former Marines and civilians familiar with the military speculated that Leberman may have yielded to tremendous pressure to
complete his mission: winning approval for an aircraft on which the Marines virtually have staked their future.

"The pressure has been on the Marine Corps to go ahead with the Osprey as their most important weapons program," said John Issacs, president of the Council for a Livable World and a strong MV-22 critic. "That pressure comes from up and down the service, from Congress . . . with the Marines saying, `If we don't get it, we'll have a lesser future.' "

The Osprey, with revolutionary tilt-rotor technology that can take off and land like a helicopter but fly like a turbo-prop airplane, is intended to replace the Vietnam-vintage CH-46 helicopters.

With the CH-46s increasingly unreliable and expensive to maintain and with no acceptable alternative available, the Marines are anxious to get the Osprey into production.

But two crashes that killed 23 Marines last year and an independent evaluation that called the Osprey "operationally unsuitable" because of poor reliability and high maintenance costs have threatened the program.

According to a tape recording and a letter sent by an enlisted technician with the Osprey squadron, Leberman told his Marines that "we need to lie" about aircraft readiness because "until Milestone III, this program is in jeopardy."

Milestone III is the required program check point to start full-rate production, after which weapons programs seldom are canceled.

"It all stems from the attitude that we have to have the plane whether or not it is ready," the anonymous whistle-blower said in the letter.

James Anderson, a defense consultant and former Marine officer, said the pressure probably got to Leberman.

"He read the papers, understood that billions of dollars are at stake, the importance to the Marine Corps. It appears he buckled," Anderson said. "Certainly there is the mentality of `Take the hill no matter what the cost' in the Corps. But there also is the emphasis put on integrity, particularly for an officer."

Leberman's alleged actions reflect "a misplaced loyalty at best, a skewed sense of honor in trying to defend the Marine Corps' biggest program by a dishonorable act," said a retired Marine colonel. "There must have been a tremendous amount of pressure to make him make so stupid a decision."

Gen. James L. Jones, the Marine Corps commandant, called Leberman's alleged statements disturbing.

"Sometimes people react strangely to what they perceive to be pressure," Jones said recently. "We'll just have to let the investigation find out why."

A number of people, including some former senior Marine officers, believe Leberman was acting under direction from his superiors.

"This is not the act of a single Marine lieutenant colonel who had taken the weight of an entire program on his shoulders," said a retired senior

Jones has asked the Defense Department inspector general to take over the Marines' investigation of the Osprey unit to ward off "unwarranted
perceptions of command influence or institutional bias."

Lt. Gen Fred McCorkle, director of Marine aviation, said it was "inconceivable that they're going to have people up the line that would tell this commander to lie."

Although Leberman said that his comments on the tape were taken out of context and that he did nothing to endanger his flight crews, his alleged actions have shocked Marines and others who know their traditions.

"The most important thing is the safety of our Marines. . . . That is job one for any commander," he said. "So this will be looked at appropriately . . . including looking at ourselves to see what it is that might cause our commanders, or a commander, to feel that he would have to do something like that."

"For a Marine officer to say we have to lie, that's just not acceptable by any of our standards," said retired Gen. Carl Mundy, a former commandant. "The reputation of the Corps is very, very important to the Marines."

Although all the Marines acknowledged their tradition of completing their mission regardless of the cost, many of those interviewed noted the
distinction between battlefield and peacetime situations.

"While in combat you might risk lives to accomplish your mission, there is no obligation in a peacetime environment to do that," said retired Maj. Gen. John Admire, a former 1st Marine Division commander.

"More than anything else, it's a violation of the organizational culture," said David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland. "He may well have seen his mission as defending the aircraft . . . but the way he went about it put the lives of Marines at risk. That is a violation of Marine culture."

Segal and some Marines, however, took comfort in the fact that Leberman's alleged breach of the Corps' code of honor so offended his Marines that he was reported.

"Ultimately, the cultural system worked; the whistle got blown," Segal said.