The indestructible Osprey

The V-22 Osprey is one of the most indestructible pieces of military technology ever created.

That is not to say the aircraft, which lands like a helicopter and flies like an airplane, is invulnerable in combat. Like any other combat aircraft, the V-22 could face anti-aircraft fire or otherwise be shot down by enemies. In fact, it might even go down of its own accord, since the V-22 has been unusually prone to accidents. The Osprey has been plagued by safety concerns throughout its development history. During its testing phase between 1991 and 2000, four Osprey crashes resulted in 30 deaths. Since being activated in 2007, one V-22 has been lost in an accident and a number of others have been damaged in smaller incidents.

But the Osprey is indestructible in a different sense. As a piece of political pork and as an enduring paycheck for military contractors, the Osprey seems to be virtually impossible to kill—even at a time when Congressional leaders claim that controlling the federal budget deficit is a top priority, and when even many conservatives have claimed that military cuts should be “on the table.”

Despite being often regularly highlighted as a weapons system that could be cancelled to produce cost savings for the military, the V-22 remains in production. During the debate over the House appropriations bill in late May, Democrats introduced two different amendments that would have cut funding for the Osprey. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), who offered one amendment, called the program a “boondoggle” for the military-industrial complex and argued, “The job of the Pentagon is not to make defense contractors rich.”

Yet the House overwhelmingly voted down the amendments after Rep. Patrick Meehan led a campaign to save the V-22. Breaking from typical conservative stances against public spending on employment programs, he wrote in a “dear colleagues” letter:

“Cutting this program will take away high-paying jobs and add to unemployment at a critical time in our economic recovery. Our Congressional priority should be on creating and preserving jobs, not destroying them.”

Over the summer, demands for austerity only heated up. Nevertheless, since the failure of the bipartisan “Super Committee” to reach a budget-cutting deal in November, Republicans have vowed to block the automatic cuts to military spending that are supposed to be triggered for the future. And the defense authorization bill that passed the Senate on December 15 included $2.43 billion for the Osprey.

The V-22′s remarkable longevity is rooted in an ingenious ploy often used to arms contractors to ensure continued funding. Because the manufacture of the Osprey’s components is strategically spread over 2,000 contractors in 40 states, the program has been able to draw on a deep well of political goodwill. A short tour of just a few of its local bases of support would include:

  • Ridley, Pennsylvania: A Boeing facility in Ridley is a main site for development of the V-22. In 1991, as prices for the aircraft began to skyrocket and production delays mounted, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney recommended cancelling funding, reportedly calling the Osprey “a turkey.” Yet the program was saved, thanks to Representative Curt Weldon of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, who formed the bipartisan “Tilt-Rotor Technology Coalition” to lobby for the beleaguered aircraft. Overriding the wishes of the Department of Defense itself, the Osprey lived. And Boeing, the largest employer in Delaware County, continued receiving contracts for its development. Today, Patrick Meehan, the leader of the recent fight to defeat the anti-Osprey amendments, serves in Weldon’s district.
  • Amarillo, Texas: Bell Textron Inc., a key partner with Boeing, is based in Amarillo, a town known as “Rotor City U.S.A.” owing to its production of V-22s. Like many of his fellow Republicans, Mac Thornberry, the U.S. representative from the area, has railed against the Obama administration’s stimulus efforts, arguingthat “When government bails people out, someone still has to pay the bills,” and, “If Washington wants to help the economy, the best thing it can do is get out of the way.”

    Yet in 2010, after a bipartisan White House commission released a $3.8 trillion deficit reduction plan that targeted the Osprey, Thornberry, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, was irate. “I appreciate the chairmen of this commission offering some initial proposals to deal with the deficit,” he said in a statement, “but their charge and their expertise does not extend to evaluating individual weapon systems.” He then added, “The V-22 is doing a great job for our military. They need it, and they will have it.” Bell Textron employs more than 1000 peoplein Amarillo.

  • Hayden, Idaho: The city of Hayden is home to Unitech Composites and Structures, which has a contract to produce manifolds and ducts for the V-22. The city falls within the district of freshman Congressman Raúl Labrador. As one of an incoming cohort of militantly conservative Republicans identified with the Tea Party, Labrador has made even some veteran members of his own party uneasy with his callto “make drastic, across-the-board cuts to our federal spending levels.”

    Might the Osprey be included in his drastic cuts? The answer appears to be no. In the most recent House debate, Labrador voted against the Woolsey amendment.

While the Osprey is a gift to defense contractors, it has also served as a boon to activists by so nakedly illustrating the wastefulness and cronyism that drives defense budgeting and undermining claims that bloated military budgets actually correspond with national security needs. The annual “Unified Security Budget for the United States”—an alternative defense budget prepared by a coalition of groups including the Institute for Policy Studies, the Center for American Progress, and the Cato Institute—has regularly placed the Osprey alongside systems like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as a poster child of needless spending. The 2011 edition of the report notes, “Halting production of the V-22 will save… over $10 billion during the next five years, and would still leave the Marines with more than 150 of the V-22 hybrids.” Similarly, the non-partisan group Citizens Against Government Waste targeted the Osprey program as their “Spending Cut of the Week” in April.

Although the V-22 has become notorious in many respects, it is hardly unique as an example of how military contractors have cleverly manipulated U.S. politics. Since the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) last week, Occupy-related actions in Washington, D.C. and Des Moines, Iowa protesting the measure have produced arrests. Activists have focused primarily on the NDAA’s extension of presidential authority to indefinitely detain individuals as part of the “War on Terror;” however, groups such as United for Peace and Justice also highlight how the bill “wastes billions of dollars that 99% of Americans need for a more secure life here at home.” The phoenix-like Osprey is but one resilient emblem of this waste.

This story was made possible by our members. Become one today.