Spate of military mishaps puts scrutiny on aircraft

As Bush administration starts review, controversial systems could get the ax because of safety questions.

The recent spate of US military aircraft mishaps, which follows a year when the aviation accident rate had been the lowest ever, underscores the dangers of practicing air combat.

But questions of safety and reliability also are part of the calculus of the reform-minded Bush administration - and as it scrutinizes all military hardware, the recent crashes may focus its attention on the new generation of airplanes and helicopters.

With budgets and 21st-century strategies in mind, the Bush team will make some hard choices, and not every constituency will be happy.

For example, tradeoffs are likely to be made between three new tactical aircraft lined up for takeoff: the Air Force F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, the Joint Strike Fighter, and the latest versions of the Navy's F/A-18 Hornet fighter-bomber. In addition to aircraft, one of the biggest of the Pentagon's big-ticket purchases, fewer new attack submarines and aircraft carriers could appear on the Defense Department's shopping list.

In the hottest spotlight is the controversial Marine Corps tilt-rotor helicopter-airplane hybrid. The V-22 Osprey, which has yet to be approved for full production of the 360 aircraft the corps wants, has crashed four times, taking the lives of 26 marines and four civilians. Two of those accidents came last year.

Despite the poor record, marines insist that the Osprey's longer range, faster speed, and ability to carry more troops and equipment are needed for quick response to today's likely threats.

"No other capability meets the V-22's war-fighting potential," says Marine Corps commandant Gen. James Jones.

Critics say the Osprey is dangerous and expensive - and that military helicopters already in service could do its job better.

The Pentagon's inspector general is investigating allegations of fraud in the falsification of maintenance records to make the Osprey look better. The General Accounting Office (the investigative arm of Congress) warns of "cost increases, schedule delays, and performance problems." A separate blue-ribbon panel, which is taking a broad look at the Osprey program, will issue its report in a few weeks.

Critics also say the Osprey's story illustrates the typical push to produce new fighting equipment (when manufacturing jobs are created and defense contractors make most of their money) before all the bugs are revealed. The GAO's report on the Osprey noted "persistent problems associated with late or incomplete testing."

Despite the controversy, the problem-plagued $40-billion V-22 program could survive.

As Defense secretary during the previous Bush administration, Vice President Dick Cheney was unable to kill it due to congressional support, particularly from districts where it is built. The Osprey's prime contractors are in Pennsylvania and Texas.

But in a series of articles this week, the News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., reported that subcontracts are spread across 45 states and 276 congressional districts - which means that nearly two-thirds of all members of Congress have at least some direct interest in the Osprey.

For now, the odd-looking bird with propeller/rotors on its wingtips has been grounded. It's likely to remain so until officials find out why fatal accidents occur every 1,000 hours (or less) of flying time. Of the 20 Ospreys built so far, four have crashed. The most recent accident occurred in December, when a V-22 crashed near the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base in North Carolina, killing four marines.

It's not just new military aircraft that have had problems lately.

On Monday, an Army RC-12 twin-prop plane crashed in Germany, killing both pilots. The same day, two Air Force F-15 fighters on a low-level training mission over mountainous terrain in Scotland disappeared and are presumed to have crashed. Earlier this month, an Army C-23 transport aircraft crashed in Georgia, taking the lives of three air crew and 18 Virginia National Guard troops. Last month, two Army Black Hawk helicopters collided at night in Hawaii, killing six soldiers.

Despite the loss of 19 marines in one Osprey accident, there were just 1.23 major military aircraft mishaps per 100,000 flight hours during fiscal year 2000, a 20 percent decrease over 1999 and the lowest ever recorded. In all, 58 service members were killed in flying accidents last year.

Some of the families of Osprey aircrew killed in accidents have sued the manufacturers, Bell Helicopter Textron and the Boeing Co., for wrongful death. They are particularly disturbed that the deceased pilots in an Osprey crash last April have been blamed for the accident.

"Send it back. Get it fixed. Make it work," says Brian Alexander, the attorney (and former Army helicopter pilot) representing marine families.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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