The Crash of the Osprey


On April 8, a hybrid helicopter-airplane known as the V-22 Osprey crashed in Arizona, killing all 19 Marines aboard. It was, said Air Force Magazine, "one of the worst accidents in the history of Marine Corps aviation and one of the deadliest military crashes of the decade." The accident seems to have taught not a thing to officials in the Clinton administration, the military, or the Congress, but for the rest of us the incident has some important lessons about U.S. foreign policy, the corruption of U.S. politics, the nature of the Democratic Party, and the role of the state under capitalism.

Back in the 1980s, military planners had proposed an aircraft that could land and take-off like a helicopter, yet fly with the speed and range of a regular plane. The Marines were particularly gung-ho about such a development, for their mission was to "strike like Genghis Khan," in the words of Marine Commandant General A. M. Gray, and the V-22 would facilitate such military interventions. The technology, however, was unproven and incredibly expensive, and the Bush administration, already committed to many high-ticket items, like Star Wars and the B-2 stealth bomber, decided in 1989 that the V-22 was unaffordable given the pressures to cut the military budget after the Cold War. Remarkably, however, the Democratic-controlled Congress overruled the Bush administration and funded it anyway. When Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney said he wouldn’t spend the money, Congress demanded that he do so.

Among the V-22’s champions were virtually all of the House liberals (Atkins, Boxer, Conyers, Crocket, Dellums, Downey, Dwyer, Dymally, Flake, Frank, Hamilton, Kennedy, Lantos, Levin, Levine, McCloskey, Moakley, Owens, Payne, Rangel, Schroeder, Schumer, Solarz, Studds, Torricelli, Udall, Waxman, Weiss, and Wolpe) and Senators such as Kennedy, Glenn, Pell, Lautenberg, Wofford, Cranston, Chafee, Harkin, and Leahy. A crash of a test model of the V-22 in 1991 and a fatal crash the next year did little to dampen Congressional ardor. And in the 1992 presidential election campaign candidate Bill Clinton criticized Bush for not backing the V-22; outflanked, Bush then switched his position and announced that he too supported it.

What accounts for the Democrats’ enthusiasm for the Osprey? In part, it was a result of shrewd marketing by the aircraft’s manufacturers, Boeing and Bell Helicopter Textron, who managed to spread subcontracts to 40 states and thus to many congressional districts. Pork barrel is standard operating procedure on the Hill: to mention just two other current examples, though not requested by the Pentagon, an amphibious assault ship is being built in Mississippi, home state of Senate majority leader Trent Lott, and extra F-15 fighters are being turned out in the district of House minority leader Dick Gephardt.

But even those members of Congress who received no V-22 pork are recipients of military industry largesse in the form of campaign contributions. Among the leading Congressional beneficiaries were Al Gore and Clinton’s first Defense Secretary, Les Aspin. And among the most generous contributors of soft money to both major parties, noted the New York Times, have been Boeing and Bell Textron. The Federal Election Commission website lists more than a million dollars donated by Boeing’s Political Action Committee since 1997 to candidates such as Republicans Armey, DeLay, Gingrich, Hastert, Hatch, Hyde, and Lott, but also Democrats Bonior, Conyers, Daschle, Dodd, Feinstein, Gephardt, Tony Hall, Ted Kennedy, Patrick Kennedy, Rangel, and Robb.

Moreover, Democrats as much as Republicans backed an interventionist foreign policy in the aftermath of the Cold War. "All of us realize," declared Indiana Democrat Frank McCloskey, "that the very possibility for low intensity conflict as we saw in Panama, as we have seen in Grenada, as we saw over in the Middle East will come time and time again. And who will we call upon? We will call upon the Marines and we will call upon our Special Operations Forces. Their top priority remains the V-22."

But there is one additional motive for the Democrats’ backing the Osprey: the commercial applications of the "tilt-rotor" technology. In 1990 Rep. (now Senator) Torricelli of New Jersey effused that this technology "has the potential to affect in a profound and enduring way the future of air transportation, and indeed, the continuing leadership of the United States in this important international field." There have been, proclaimed Torricelli, "only a handful of such technologies in the history of aviation. Those that understood their importance and had the vision to undertake their development were rewarded with many years of unchallenged market dominance."

Private investors have not been willing to commit funds to develop tilt-rotor technology: it’s simply too speculative to be worth the financial risk. It may not be "an engineering impossibility," as the Secretary of the Navy put it in 1992, but given that three out of fifteen Ospreys produced have already crashed and given that the price tag so far (factoring in the research and development costs) is $80 million per unit — more than three times the initial estimate and twice the cost of an F-16 — it’s no surprise that the private sector is not rushing to invest. Nevertheless, as one Senator noted, the aviation companies "would love the Federal Government and taxpayers to go to the expense" of developing the new technology for them.

Taxpayers’ funds have in fact been the motor force for the U.S. economy since World War II. As the White House boasted on June 16, 2000: "Many of the products and services we have come to depend on for our way of life in America — the Internet, the Global Positioning System (GPS), lasers, computers, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), teflon and other advanced materials and composites, communications satellites, jet aircraft, microwave ovens, solar-electric cells, modems, semiconductors, storm windows, genetic medicine and biotechnology, and many others — are the products of Federal R&D [Research and Development] investments made over the past 50 years."

The White House went on: "It is no accident that our country’s most productive and competitive industries are those that benefited from sustained Federal investments in R&D — computers and communications, semiconductors, biotechnology, aerospace, environmental technologies, energy efficiency." Such investments, said the White House, "would be impossible for individual companies or even whole industries to afford."

A large chunk of Federal R&D has come from the Pentagon — the easiest way to generate funds, since "national security" is such an easy sell. As James L. Jones, the current Marine Commandant, wrote in a letter to the New York Times about the Osprey, "While cost is a consideration, it is not the most important factor when it comes to meeting our country’s military requirements."

Now there is nothing wrong with government investment. Though contrary to prevailing free-market mythology, such investment is indeed the best way to promote technological progress. The problem, however, is that while the taxpayer pays for the investment and takes the risk, it is private corporations that monopolize most of the profits. How many of the industries made possible by public investment are currently in public hands? Computers and communications, semiconductors, biotechnology, aerospace, environmental technologies, energy? Not a one.

Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan has claimed that technology is the primarily cause of the nation’s booming economy. But what fraction of that boom has accrued, not to the wealthy few, but to the majority of the population? Given that real wages are about where they were two decades ago, while the rich are enjoying unprecedented prosperity, it is hard to see how the U.S. public has shared in the profits from its R&D investments. In short, we have a system of government investment for the rich and the discipline of the market for everyone else.

What was the cause of the April V-22 Osprey crash? The Marines were quick to announce that there was no mechanical or software problem, that the pilot seemed to be operating the craft at a speed "outside the flight envelope" (although why the V-22 wasn’t designed to prevent this sort of pilot error is incomprehensible). One shouldn’t be confident that the Osprey has solved its technical problems — in May, a defect was found in the prop-rotor slip-ring assemblies — but on another level it certainly is true that human error is to blame for the crash: the human error of bought policy-makers and legislators serving a Genghis Khan-like foreign policy and a political system designed to subsidize the rich at public expense.


Stephen R. Shalom teaches political science at William Paterson University in NJ. Background material on the Osprey is drawn from his article "The V-22 Osprey and the Post-Cold War Military Budget," Z Magazine, June 1993.



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