San Diego Union-Tribune

May 23, 2001

Latest attempt to keep Osprey program alive has its doubters

Civilian manager is now in charge


WASHINGTON -- The Marine Corps' troubled Osprey has survived
another near-death experience.

But this week's decision by the Pentagon's top civilian acquisition official to give the tilt-rotor aircraft one more chance has placed the Marines' top aviation program in the hands of a tough-minded civilian manager instead of Navy officials who kept it going through years of cost growth, technical problems and three fatal accidents.

From the commandant, Gen. James L. Jones, down to the Marine spokesman for the Osprey, the decision by acquisition czar Pete Aldridge to keep the program alive while the plane's contractors try to fix a myriad of problems was greeted with extreme caution.

"I need to know more about the implications of the decision," a clearly
troubled Jones said when asked about what most Osprey supporters had at first thought was a positive development.

"The far-reaching impacts of the DoD (Defense Department) decision are unclear at this point," said Capt. David Nevers, a Marine public affairs officer.

John Issacs, one of the Osprey's most vocal critics, wondered, "Has he
(Aldridge) saved it, or has he taken it over to kill it?

"If I were the Navy, I would have more confidence if they had retained
control," said Issacs, director of the Council for a Livable World.

Although the decision by Aldridge does keep the MV-22 program alive, it is clear its future is far from secure. And, if it survives, it could be an additional four or five years before Ospreys begin to replace the aged CH-46 and CH-53D helicopters at the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station and Camp Pendleton.

In simple terms, Aldridge took away from the Navy's civilian acquisition executive the crucial production decisions on the Osprey. That means he will decide when, or if, the MV-22s are allowed to go into full production, a decision the Navy was about to make in December before the last of the crashes that have killed 30 Marines and contractor employees.

Aldridge also announced formation of a top-level executive review committee that will monitor the effort to resolve the many safety and reliability questions that put the Osprey on the verge of cancellation.

At the same time, however, he approved the multiphased plan Navy officials proposed to deal with the MV-22's problems. He also authorized release of the money necessary to buy enough Ospreys during the next few years to keep the production line alive while the contractors try to fix design problems.

But Nevers added a word of caution: "We don't believe that by allowing the Marines to go ahead to procure the aircraft already funded indicates what the production rate will be in the future, or what DoD will decide ultimately."

The Marines want to buy 360 Opsreys and the Air Force 50 in a $40 billion program.

Nevers and a spokeswoman for the Naval Air Systems Command, which normally supervises Marine aviation programs, were not sure how Aldridge's action affected their managers.

What is clear is that the heat is on the contractors, the Bell and Boeing
helicopter units, to do what they have not done in the past 12 years --
produce an aircraft that is both safe and reliable.

At a Capitol Hill forum held yesterday by Osprey supporters, company
executives indicated they had gotten the message.

After talking enthusiastically about the potential market for tens of billions of dollars in military and civilian tilt-rotor aircraft, Bell chief executive Terry Stinson said he recognized that "we can't be successful if we don't provide safe and reliable aircraft."

And the man that has to be impressed, Aldridge, is a former astronaut, a onetime Air Force secretary and the executive of an aerospace firm that won the Pentagon's top award for efficient acquisition programs.