Hardware For Dummies: The Osprey Vs. The Hornet

Sunday, August 24th, 2008

Gary Brecher (The War Nerd) compares the V-22 Osprey versus the F/A-18 Hornet in Hardware For Dummies:

If you’re a typical half-baked Tom Clancy fan, you know what to think of both these planes: F/A-18 good, V-22 bad. Wrong on both counts. In fact, that’s why it’s hard to talk hardware, because you have to de-program so much crap from the standard view.
Back when he was Secretary of Defense, Cheney said the V-22 was “…one weapons system I don’t need.”

That’s as good a place as any to start your deprogramming: whatever Dick Cheney says, think the opposite. If Dick Cheney tells you it’s a sunny day, get your umbrella. It’s no surprise to me that Cheney hates this weapons system, because Cheney is, and I’m kind of half serious here, an Iranian agent who hates America and wants to destroy us. He’s all for spending trillions of our tax dollars on absolutely worthless weapons like aircraft carriers, but he fought hard against the Osprey because it’s the one contemporary weapons system that could have made a difference in Operation Desert One/Eagle Claw, the Iran hostage-rescue attempt back in the days of Reverend Jimmy Carter.

That’s a good handy test to ask yourself about any weapons system: would it have helped in Desert One? That’s the kind of mission we need to think about: special ops, fast and quiet.

So why does the Osprey get so much bad-mouthing?

You tell me, why would the Air Force, the Navy and the Army hate a weapons system like this one? Remember, we’re talking about jealous branches of the Armed Services, we’re talking about billions of dollars, we’re talking about a world where an Air Force general takes off his uniform and gets a lobbying job without even blinking. And keep in mind that each one of the Armed Services will do anything to keep from losing money to the others.

I bet you got it by now. The Osprey is a Marine Corps project. This should be the last clue you need: what makes the Corps different from all the other services? Answer: because it has its own air wing, and this USMC air wing is the only American force that’s allowed to operate fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, or mutants like the V-22; all the other services have to stick to one or the other kind of aircraft. The Army is limited by law to helicopters and the Air Force has a monopoly of fixed (or swept-) wing craft. So a plane like the Osprey, that can turn from one to the other in a few seconds, is about as welcome as a sneezing duck on a trans-Pacific flight from Hong Kong.

Defense appropriations are an annual turf war between the services, and the Osprey doesn’t even have any identifiable turf. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a procurement officer’s worst nightmare! It threatens the whole paranoid truce between the three big services about who owns what.

The fact that the V-22 might actually help us fight irregular wars like the ones we actually need to plan for doesn’t figure at all. They’d laugh at you if you brought that up. It’d just prove that “you don’t get it.” To them, this is like an advertising campaign. They want to sell programs to Congress so they can buy another condo in Costa Rica.

So how did the F/A-18 Hornet come to be?

The idea behind the Lightweight Fighter was that, in an all-out air war against the Warsaw Pact, we’d lose a lot of planes, so we needed a HiLo mix of expensive high-altitude air-superiority fighters like the F-15 and F-14 and cheaper, lighter planes that could match the dogfighting agility of the MiG-21. We were overrating the MiG-21, as it turned out, but at the time everybody took it real seriously. Why not? There was no money in admitting the MiG-21 was a flying Yugo. Totally inferior to the earlier MiG designs. It was supposed to be a lean, mean killer and we needed something to match.
There were five entries, but it soon came down to two contenders: the General Dynamics YF-16 and the Northrop YF-17. Both services, the USAF and the Navy, had agreed to buy the winning design. And it was pretty clear, even to a naive kid like me, that General Dynamics was the winning team this time. I knew how to read between the lines from being a big Oakland Raiders fan: I knew what the writers were saying in that careful language they used. And they were saying Northrop’s design was a dog, but GD’s was amazing.

Nobody much liked GD back then, because the F-111 fighter-bomber had a bad rep, but their F-16 prototype outflew the Northrop contender every time. It was more mobile at high speed, and it even cost less: $4.6 million per copy, vs. $5 million for the Northrop. In 1975 it was officially announced as the winner. And that’s when things got weird. At the time I just didn’t understand what happened. Too young and dumb, too trusting — like most war nerds are even today.

First big shock was that the Navy went back on the deal, announced it wouldn’t buy the F-16 and was going to adopt a modified version of the F-17. The official reason was that the F-16 had only one engine, and the Navy had always had double-engine fighters. The Northrop design, the YF-17, was a twin-engine.

But that two-engine story was actually a lie that the Navy figured was simple enough for Congress to understand. [...] The real reason the Navy didn’t want the F-16 was that the USAF was going to be using it. Even though they’d stuck the USAF with the F-4, they weren’t going to take their promised turn making the big adjustment. The Navy didn’t really think much of the Northrop YF-17, but they liked the fact that it would be all theirs.

And to show that they were calling the shots, the Navy went and did the ultimate betrayal: they bought the Northrop design, and then froze Northrop itself out of the development process, the whole long, profitable business of converting the YF-17 into a carrier-based airplane that eventually became the F/A-18. They handed over the whole program to a contractor they liked better, McDonnell Douglas.

The reason the Navy wouldn’t let Northrop handle the program goes all the way back to the 1940s, when these companies were still run by the guys they’re named after. Northrop was the property of John Knudsen Northrop, who had earned the total, eternal hate of the Navy by daring to tell Congress that we didn’t need aircraft carriers any more. That’s the one thing you don’t ever tell the Navy, even though everybody knows it’s true. Northrop was just trying to sell his weird “flying wing” designs when he made that crack about the carriers, but the damage was done. Thirty years later, the Navy brass got its revenge by taking Northrop’s F-17 away and making it the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18.

It wasn’t a very good design then, and it isn’t now. The F-16 has had a totally brilliant career, proved itself in air superiority and ground attack versions. The F/A-18 clunks along thanks to great pilots and a lot of cash, but it’s just not that great an airframe.

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