Wings Of Freedom

This is a meditation on the Marines’ MV-22 Osprey, the crash-and-cost-and-scandal-plagued tilt-rotor aircraft that’s rapidly emerging as a media target of opportunity and Pentagon candidate for cancellation. But the Osprey is about more than airlift. In a very real sense, it’s a metaphor for America or, more precisely, what America seems to have become.
Before getting into the details, a pair of thoughts whose very banality suggests that they have something important to tell us.

First, every major project goes through three phases: It won’t work, it’ll cost too much, and I thought it was a good idea all along.

Second, almost by definition, all big-ticket military projects are troubled. (So are civilian works; mass transit and professional sports stadiums provide only two common examples.) The causes range from human error and culpability to ever-changing military and government requirements; from budget uncertainties to personnel turbulence; and to that tandem of frustrations the engineers bemoan as “known unknowns and unknown unknowns.” Known unknowns–glitches that can be expected to arise. Unknown unknowns–now, why the heck did that happen?

But things do get fixed. Go back to Desert Storm. Every item that worked so niftily, from the M-16 rifle to the Abrams tank and the Tomahawk cruise missile, was once troubled and scandal-ridden. More recently, the Air Force C-17 transport went from basket case to world-class (albeit a somewhat over-promised world-class) in a matter of months. Of course, the system that gets fixed isn’t news, and the accusations and scandals remain in the data base alongside the triumphs.

Now to the Bell Textron/Boeing Osprey, the two-engine plane that tilts its rotors to take off and land like a helicopter. (Boeing is working on a four-engine version.) It cruises at 400 mph, climbs to 25,000 feet, and can carry 24 combat-loaded troops or 15,000 pounds of cargo. The Marines want over 300; the Navy and Air Force would like about 100 more.

As a R&D project, the Osprey goes back to the 1970s. It was cancelled in 1989 by then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, but revived under Bill Clinton. There have been four crashes, including two last year that killed 23 Marines. Explanations run from pilot and maintenance errors to faulty software and hydraulics, to a possible unknown unknown known as vortex ring state, or a crash-causing rotor stall. A few days ago, the Marines relieved Lt. Col. Odin Leberman, commander of the only Osprey squadron, for ordering his mechanics to falsify maintenance records to indicate high readiness rates. The Marines and the Defense Department are investigating whether Col. Leberman was pressured to do so. The final procurement decision has been postponed indefinitely. Rumors of the Osprey’s impending demise may or may not be exaggerated.

That demise would be tragic. The Osprey is a necessary plane in many ways. The Marines need it to replace their aging helicopter fleet. If you want to try something really scary, ride in one of their Vietnam-era CH-46s and pray that the paint holding it together doesn’t peel-off in midair. The Osprey is superb for amphibious assault, special operations, search and rescue. It would be ideal for drug interdiction, going after all those small, no-flight-plan-filed planes landing at unmarked air strips, dumping their cargo, then getting gone in a hurry.

The Osprey also has myriad nonmilitary uses. The 609, as the planned civilian version is known, makes sense as a gap-filler between helicopters (a limited technology with limited civil transport uses) and short-range jet travel. And it’s an ecological godsend. No need for huge additional airports in urban areas, or for extensive construction in the wilderness. The potential export market might modestly be described as gargantuan.

So why the clamor for cancellation? In simple terms (and aside from budget pressures), the confluence of two mentalities–Zero Defects and Zero Risk that have the potential to cripple this country militarily, economically, spiritually. Zero Defects: If it ain’t perfect, it’s unacceptable. And Zero Risk: If it might get dangerous, don’t do it.

Do I exaggerate? Think back to how the Kosovo air campaign was conducted. Remember NASA after the Challenger disaster, the predictions that any additional loss would force the end of crewed space exploration forever? Think of the environmental movement’s precautionary principle. Only that which can be proved ahead of time to be totally benign is acceptable. Peruse any morning’s paper or evening’s newscast; the dangers of this, the risks of that, until you wonder if there’s anything left on this planet that isn’t harmful to your health.

Now, no one thinks that death and disaster are cool. But only the deluded believe that they’re always avoidable. Without acceptance of risk, physical and financial, there is no freedom to create. And without acceptance of risk-gone-wrong, and the determination to learn from it and redeem it instead of being paralyzed by it, there can be no progress in anything. The Osprey should be fixed, whatever that means and takes. It should be made available to both the military and civilian worlds. It should become a symbol of real-world triumph, not a metaphor for the mentality that demands risk-free perfection in all things, and at all costs.

And, 10 years from now, when everybody claims they always knew what a great idea it was, we can smile and move on to the next troubled affair.

Philip Gold is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute in Seattle and president of Aretea, a cultural affairs center.

Philip Gold

Dr. Philip Gold is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, and director of the Institute's Aerospace 2010 Project. A former Marine, he is the author of Evasion,: The American Way of Military Service and over 100 articles on defense matters. He teaches at Georgetown University and is a frequent op-ed contributor to several newspapers. Dr. Gold divides his time between Seattle and Washington, D.C.