In the recent Pitch Black joint exercise in Australia, the land of crocodiles and terrifying spiders, U.S. Marines were finally able to fly a mission with MV-22 Ospreys escorted by light aircraft.
Elements within the U.S. military have long advocated for a light attack aircraft, and the recent Light Attack Experiment ended with the possibility of the Air Force acquiring a small force of A-29s or AT-6C aircraft in 2019. Should the under-armed but long-range MV-22 need a light air-to-ground escort, the Pitch Black Exercise laid out pretty clearly how it would go down.
The MV-22 Osprey is armed with only a ramp-mounted machine gun, leaving it vulnerable to small-arms fire, MANPADS, Technicals with light machine guns, and other unsophisticated threats in unconventional environments. The long range and high speed of the tilt-rotor Osprey makes it difficult for traditional rotary assets such as AH-1Z Cobras or AH-64 Apaches to keep up. Although the PC-9/As operated by the Australian Air Force are not armed, the platform has the capability of slinging gun pods and drop stores on its six underwing hardpoints — which is exactly what the MV-22 would need to keep a hot drop zone clear during an operation in contested territory.
One alternative to the Light Attack Aircraft option is that the mission could be performed by other assets such as F-16s or F/A-18 Super Hornets. Another is that the MV-22 itself could be more heavily armed to counter any resistance at dropzones. A third alternative is a combination of the two above and the assertion that in an irregular conflict, the partner nation could provide light air support for the MV-22, making the investment by the United States illogical in an era of great power competition.
The problem with using fast-moving and more expensive jets for CAS support is that they are overkill for the mission at hand. Their loiter time is shorter, and their high-speed orbits make them a less effective JTAC asset in the stack.
Arming the MV-22 to take care of itself creates even more problems.
Additional weapons would decrease the Osprey’s range and flight time. If one armed MV-22 is deploying troops it is vulnerable while it deploys them. If multiple armed MV-22s are sent to take an objective, a complex system for protection and disbursement of troops would be required. Fully-loaded MV-22s would be tasked with air support, which would make the loss of an MV-22 potentially catastrophic in terms of casualties.
And finally, there are eye-opening examples of MV-22s operating in low-intensity conflict zones, where partner nations were either unwilling, unable, or never asked to provide overwatch for MV-22 operations. Exercise Pitch Black in Australia laid out a visual example of the advantages of having cheap, lightweight aircraft acting as escorts for the lumbering Ospreys. We can only hope that the OAX purchase order becomes more than just an excuse to train up JTACs with cheaper aircraft.