The Marine Corps is now arming its Osprey tiltrotor aircraft with a range of weapons to enable its assault support and escort missions in increasingly high-threat combat environments.
Rockets, guns and missiles are among the weapons now under consideration, as the Corps examines requirements for an "all-quadrant" weapons application versus other possible configurations such as purely "forward firing" weapons.
"The current requirement is for an all quadrant weapons system. We are re-examining that requirement—we may find that initially, forward firing weapons could bridge the escort gap until we get a new rotary wing or tiltotor attack platform, with comparable range and speed to the Osprey.
A more capable and heavily armed Osprey will be able to provide its own escort protection, a development the Corps has been pursuing for several years now from lessons learned in the field.
Adding weapons to the Osprey would naturally allow the aircraft to better defend itself should it come under attack from small arms fire, missiles or surface rockets while conducting transport missions; in addition, precision fire will enable the Osprey to support amphibious operations with suppressive or offensive fire as Marines approach enemy territory.
Weapons will better facilitate an Osprey-centric tactic known as "Mounted Vertical Maneuver" wherein the tiltrotor uses its airplane speeds and helicopter hover and maneuver technology to transport weapons such as mobile mortars and light vehicles, supplies and Marines behind enemy lines for a range of combat missions -- to include surprise attacks.
Also, while arming the Osprey is primarily oriented toward supporting escort and maneuver operations, there are without question a few combat engagements the aircraft could easily find itself in while conducting these missions.
For example, an armed Osprey would be better positioned to prevent or stop swarming small boat attack wherein enemy surface vessels attacked the aircraft. An Osprey with weapons could also thwart enemy ground attacks from RPGs, MANPADS or small arms fire.
Finally, given the fast pace of Marine Corps and Navy amphibious operations strategy evolution, armed Ospreys could support amphibious assaults by transporting Marines to combat across wider swaths of combat areas.
The Corps’ latest plans to put forward-firing weapons on the Osprey comes at a time when the Marines are rethinking their long-standing hopes for a reliable all-quadrant weapon system that can shoot in many directions.
All weapons under consideration have already been fired in combat by some type of aircraft, however additional testing and assessment of the weapons and their supporting systems are necessary to take the integration to the next step.
"We want to arm the MV-22B because there is a gap in escort capability. With the right weapons and associated systems, armed MV-22Bs will be able to escort other Ospreys performing the traditional personnel transport role.”
Efforts to build and deploy an all-quadrant weapon have had some trouble in recent years.
In the long run, the additional guns on the Osprey would be a somewhat temporary stopgap measure while the Corps continues to develop a massive futuristic sea drone. The future expeditionary sea drone program is known as the MUX.
Over the next decade, the Corps wants to develop a serious-heatpacking expeditionary armed sea drone that can complement the long-range capabilities of newer aircraft like the F-35B/C, CH-53K and MV-22.
But it’s going to be years before the Corps can field that, so new modifications for the MV-22 could fill the void in the meantime.
We may find that initially, forward-firing weapons could bridge the escort gap until we get a new rotary wing or tilt-rotor attack platform, with comparable range and speed to the Osprey.
For now, the official Marine Corps requirement remains an all-quadrant weapons system, but Marine Corps officials are rethinking that.
Several years ago, the Ospreys were armed with the Defense Weapon System ― in essence an underbelly-mounted 7.62mm chain gun.
Officials at Naval Air Systems Command claim the chain gun does “not provide adequate all-quadrant capability due to restricted zones of fire to protect the aircraft.
The Defense Weapon System has gone through a slew of testing and has been operational with the Osprey. But past reports have been critical of the system’s overall quality and capability. After testing of the Defense Weapon System in 2015, the Corps found damage to the fuselage on several test aircraft.
The MV-22 is also armed with the GAU-21 .50-caliber machine gun or an on ramp GAU-18 7.62mm machine gun.
The Corps has looked at several options for forward-firing rockets and missiles to bridge the escort gap, including the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System, or APKWS, which turns 2.75-inch rockets into precision-guided munitions, and Hellfires.
Some weapons, possibly including Hydra 2.75inch folding fin laser guided rockets or .50-cal and 7.62mm guns, have been fired as a proof of concept.
The Hydra 2.75inch rockets, called the Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System APKWS, have been fired in combat on a range of Army and Marine Corps helicopters; they offer an alternative to a larger Hellfire missiles when smaller, fast-moving targets need to be attacked with less potential damage to a surrounding area.
But the Corps is also looking at other forward-firing weapons beyond rockets and missiles.
"Further testing would have to be done to ensure we could properly integrate them.”