Lessons From an Osprey

It's too soon to know why a military aircraft, a V-22 Osprey, went down April 8, killing 19 marines.

But what is known about this unusual flying machine, which has been nearly two decades in development, is that it has often been more popular with the many politicians whose home districts build it than with the military.

Not that it doesn't have backers in uniform. It promises, after all, more troop-carrying capacity and much greater speed than the helicopters it would replace. The Osprey is a daring design - a craft with propeller engines that tilt upward so it can land and take off like a copter, but can fly speedily over battle zones as a plane.

The plane's manufacturers, however, have had difficulty persuading everyone that the craft will be reliable. Critics, including the General Accounting Office, have issued warnings about unsatisfactory test results. And the price per plane has soared from an initial estimate of $24 million to about $80 million.

But the lobbying thrust behind the Osprey - revved early and often by its manufacturers - kept it airborne politically. It was once billed as having parts that would be built in 40 different states.

But when the Pentagon was ready to shelve it, Congress refused.

A similar scenario is being played out with other weapons systems, such as an amphibious assault ship being built in Mississippi, the state of the powerful Senate majority leader, Trent Lott.

Or there's the example of the extra F-15 fighters being built in the district of House minority leader Dick Gephardt.

The Pentagon didn't ask for either item, but the political payback from creating jobs back home has trumped military necessity.

The Osprey may yet prove to be a sound aircraft. But its history is a lesson in how not to keep a nation's defense on a sound footing.

The crash of the V-22 puts a spotlight on who wanted this aircraft.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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