Lieutenant-Colonel Bianca: A Situation Report on the Osprey in Afghanistan
On February 9th, 2010, “Second Line of Defense”‘ followed up its earlier interview with the Osprey squadron just before its deployment to Afghanistan last November with a new one, this time directly from Afghanistan, with Lieutenant-Colonel Bianca, the Osprey Squadron Commander. Accompanying this interview is a slideshow of Osprey operations in Afghanistan. The interview and the photos demonstrate the wide-range of activities the aircraft has been displaying in support of US Marine Corps and allied operations. One might note that the major NATO offensive against the Taliban began that day, as shown in another slideshow, which highlights USMC actions in the beginning phase of this operation.
The most compelling point underscored by the squadron commander is how, in effect, the Osprey has inverted infrastructure and platform. Normally, the infrastructure shapes what the platform can do. Indeed, a rotorcraft or a fixed wing aircraft can operate under specific circumstances. With the range and speed of the Osprey aircraft, the plane shapes an overarching infrastructure allowing the ground forces to range over all of Afghanistan, or to be supported where there are no airfields, or where distributed forces need support. The envelopment role of the Osprey is evident in Afghanistan as well, whereby the Osprey can provide the other end of the operational blow for the ground or rotorcrafts in hot pursuit of Taliban. The Osprey can move seamlessly in front of rotorcraft and land forces, allowing the pursuit of different lines of attack. The envelopment role was not the focus of the interview because of security considerations, but anecdotal evidence suggests such an emerging role.
The V-22, the Perfect Tool For D.O.
SLD: As you arrived in Afghanistan, can you tell us about the challenges you generally have had to face as a Marine supporting the ground forces?
Lieutenant-Colonel Bianca: The nature of this particular environment is distributed operations, which – frankly – the V-22 excels at. We operate primarily in the Helmand province, but we do fly to the far reaches of the country, which we have done several times, just because we can. Also, because typically the forces and the leadership want to go places where there is no runway, and the V-22 can get you there.
Distributed operations are mostly outlying bases and living with the people out in their village and their township. One of the advantages of the airplane is the fact that it allows us to land literally at dozens of these places in a single day, move mail, food, water, and in some cases, building equipment. We have run the whole gamut of support operations. We’ve done external lift operations. We’ve done deliberate actions for basic assault insert, looking to kick in the door.
But day-to-day, we basically circulate and circumscribe the battlefield. And we do that in concert with the H-53s. Typically, the H-53s or the other aircrafts will work closer to Camp Leatherneck, while the V-22s will range out to the far reaches: that kind of burden-sharing works out pretty well for operational support.
SLD: It seems like one way to look at what the V-22 is doing is providing a very different kind of infrastructure than a classic rotorcraft or a fast jet can provide for the operational commander: would you agree?
Lieutenant-Colonel Bianca: I would say that is absolutely correct. And this is true not just for pure military operations, but also in support of the political process closely associated with the military and security operations. For example, when a Shura Tribal Council is to be held, a big issue is getting everyone together in a timely fashion to reduce the security risk to the council from Taliban attacks. The Osprey can uniquely bring folks together and move them after the meeting in a very timely manner.
There have been one or two times where we had to go get a guy literally on the border with Iran and another guy from the other end of the country from the border of Pakistan. And if you didn’t have V-22s, you could not have done that without taking several days to transport these guys.
SLD: So, just to underscore this point, the Marines talk about distributed operations and the role of the V-22 in those operations. But what you are highlighting is how, in addition, it fits the real political context of Afghanistan, as well as the need to bring the dispersed tribal leaders together to support the effort in Afghanistan and to prepare for the transition, is this correct?
Lieutenant-Colonel Bianca: Well, that is correct. And again, we are trying to put people, and policy makers, people who can have an impact together in certain places at certain times.
The nature of mobility is characterized by three things; speed, range, and payload. If you need mobility, -“hey, I just got here in Kandahar, and I need to go see this place and this place and this place, so I can get this non-government agency eyes-on” – , well then, we are your platform, and I guarantee you, we are going to get that mission.
The same thing with most of the VIPs who come from America, e.g. the undersecretary for agriculture, the various service committee members, representatives, etc . If you need to see a lot of things, then we’re going to put you on a V-22, because you’re going to see everything in this province in a day. We’ll get you there and back in a day. There are no airports; we carry the airport with us.
A “Game of Minutes”
SLD: A recent press piece focused on the role of the V-22 in Afghanistan as “ferrying around” troops. Given what you are saying and the impact which you have in shaping operational capabilities, it looks like the Osprey’s role is going rather beyond just transporting troops and doing something akin to classic rotorcraft transport: would you agree with such an assessment?
Lieutenant-Colonel Bianca: Well, you are absolutely correct. Here is something that no-one ever thinks about until one gets here. It is one thing for me to do an assault support mission where I insert troops to a location. It is quite another to talk about distributed operations.
In other words, if I am here at this airport, the troops I have to move are way over there, and the place I got to get them to is way over that way and if you want to do this in one cycle of darkness, you are going to have to put some speed on it, or you are going to have to make this a two-day evolution to move the troops here, and then get them there, so that you can do the mission.
You cannot lose sight of that either. So, even if it was to be characterized very placidly as “ferrying” of troops, there is that speed component. Football is a game of inches: combat is a game of minutes or even seconds, and that can matter.
From the distributed angle, never forget that the troops just get on the airplane here at Camp Leatherneck: they are not here at Camp Leatherneck; they are always somewhere else.
We have to go there first and then, move them to wherever the operation is going to go. And whatever one’s characterization of the operation – whether it is an assault or a town meeting -, it is time-urgent mobility.
We are moving folks to places in this country that you just cannot get to in a timely manner any other way. You simply cannot. You cannot get in a car and drive there. You can get in a helicopter and fly there, but that is going to take you two and a half or three hours. Your only option is to get into a V-22, because “I got to get to that corner in the open world, – no roads, nothing there -, we got to go do it”, and that, then, becomes our mission.
SLD: So basically, isen’t the V-22 providing a very different understanding of mobility in terms of leveraging operations, timeliness, and ability to create a result that a classic rotorcraft just could not deliver?
Lieutenant-Colonel Bianca: That is correct.
SLD: Isen’t there significant demand outside of the USMC for you to put your capability at the service of the joint warfighter and political-security personnel?
Lieutenant-Colonel Bianca: Yes, that is true. We are not a joint asset; we are a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) force. We belong to the MEB and the MEB commander has to agree to give up this aircraft for the joint or other mission. This has worked well. And we are in demand from a variety of agencies and players in the Afghan mission.
When we spoke last, back in New River, our fear was that we would have to apportion sorties out to other various commands and that has not happened. Those other commands approached the MEB and the MEB agrees or disagrees and that is how we get committed to the sorties. So we are not a joint asset per say, but can perform as such in the context of basic theater level air operations.
Readiness: Beating the Dust… and the Cold
SLD: Could you describe the nature of the operating environment?
Lieutenant-Colonel Bianca: The environment is, of course, challenging for several reasons. The first and the foremost is the fact that we’re not at an airport; we live in tents. The airplanes are hangared in tents and we only have one: for the most part. the Ospreys hence live outside in the dust and the mud and the crud on expeditionary airfield matting. We don’t take off from a concrete runway, we typically lift to and from river rock pad, open desert and things of that nature.
So, even in our base of operations, what we’re trying to do is some pretty sophisticated maintenance on some precision parts, such as actuators, hydraulic actuators, electrical motors, and so on; even the electronics of the aircraft (e.g. the flight control computers, mission computers; etc) have of course to live in this dusty environment and that’s been a challenge. But the airplanes have held up to it.
In some cases, we learned a trick or two to ease things and make the aircraft last a little longer, keeping the electronics from overheating, keeping the actuators so they could last longer on wing. Things of that nature.
But for the most part, I’d say the biggest challenge has been just the environment itself and the fact that there is no factory you could go to, no depot level maintenance facility you could go to; we’re going to fix it right here underneath the sun, or the rain, or the clouds: whatever is out there. That is how we’ve been operating and that has been a challenge.
In terms of flying the airplane in the dust, the V-22 is potentially the best airplane to do that. We are very comfortable with landing in a brownout; we do it daily. The pilots are very good at it, and the airplane systems allow us to do that.
SLD: It seems that the reported readiness rates have been extraordinary: how do you maintain such a readiness level in a very stringent and difficult environment?
Lieutenant-Colonel Bianca: We are indeed facing a challenging environment within which to provide for a ready aircraft. We are operating at more than 80% readiness in severe conditions; but I want us to be better and we are working on making it even better. But I am proud of my Marines: in some cases, you just put your backs into it – ” Hey, I know it’s raining, I know you’ve been here for 12 hours, but we got to get this actuator changed, guys” – And they drive toward it.
That is a piece of it. The other one is that I have a very responsive program manager. In some cases when I coordinate through headquarters Marine Corps requirements to Colonel Rudder and his team, I come out and I explain things like: ” I have this particular bolt that is breaking on this particular part, is there a suitable replacement?” Then the engineers go into overdrive, work the weekend and then, I can find out that, yes, I have a different one we can use. And we open that up. In those cases, we fix a problem that we have never seen before. Said like this, it is a very simplistic description, and you might get someone asking in the V-22 program: “well, what bolt? Where? What part?” I could actually give a thousand examples of things of that nature, where we just, in some cases, run things the hard way: beef this up, or that doesn’t need to be beefed up.
SLD: What has been the most surprising development from your point of view in terms of your aircraft, in your combat experience and just how the aircraft might be used, or just what you’re expecting about the environment?
Lieutenant-Colonel Bianca: We were ready to accept it to be hard, but, to be truthful, in that first month we were here, it was harder than we thought. The V-22 is a very modern aircraft. Our instructional manuals and our data tracking methods are all on computer. And there were days we did not have power – “there is no electrical power. Nobody can open up the computer today, so go open the box, we got to bring out the paper books” -: in some cases, we had to do that.
The other thing that surprised us is that no amount of western engineering, short of a low earth orbit shuttle, can get anything to Afghanistan faster than four or five days. Just not possible with the different customs and countries and methods.
We literally are on the opposite side of the globe here. And on occasion, if we identify a failure of a part that we don’t have here, then we have to park the airplane, because it is going to be at least five days before they can get that part to us. That did surprise us in the beginning.
Another surprise has also been the fact that, while we do have a tent hangar here, on occasion, it is freezing at night. This affects directly the epoxies and composites and it takes a long time for this to cure in this environment. Normally it would take us one day in New River. We would just sand it and paint it and go fly the airplane. Well, over here, three days may go by and we are still waiting for this to cure, because we did not have the capability at that time, even locally, to generate any level of warmth for that particular cure. We have done that since however: we got a contraption out here for environmental control; we bring the parts into that location and keep it at the proper temperatures and that works.
I think that my characterization would be that it was a harsher environment than we thought. And it truly was. If you can do it here, you are going to be fine anywhere: I have been in the Marine Corps for 21 years and I served in the Congo, Sierra Leone, and Eastern Morocco. I have been to some pretty distant locations, but this place takes the cake.
***Posted February 21st, 2010