While I did a pretty good job of letting my inner eight year-old dominate my reaction to the recent Transformers film, rest assured that my inner dickhead did not take those 2 hours off. OK, 6 hours. I saw it thrice. Shut up.
Like all movies that require (or think they require) the consent of our armed forces in order to film all the neat toys at the DoD's disposal, Transformers devoted a good portion of its first hour to giving our military an enthusiastic handjob. Nothing excites the Army quite like a captive audience of young males waiting to have their basest instincts stimulated, be it by giant anthropomorphic robots or shiny military hardware. Hence the first hour of the film bore a stunning resemblance to some combination of a toy commercial, an episode of Futureweapons, and those 5-minute gee-ain't-the-army-neat commercials that precede most films these days. The editing of some scenes left me wondering if there was actually someone from the Army in the editing room with Michael Bay ("OK, now do a close-up on the Predator UAV….now pan in on the A-10s……pull back and let's see those Raptors. Perfect.")
But the most gratuitous "product" placement award has to go to the backlit movement close-ups on the Army's new V-22 Osprey. It transforms from a helicopter into an airplane. Did you see that, kids? Real live Transformers, and the Army's got'em! Boy, I bet you can't wait to enlist! Those fat cats in Congress won't let us put your name on the recruiting list yet because you're only 10, but rest assured we'll find a loophole around that silly rule.
Not pictured: Optimus Prime, effective Congressional oversight
What you see in the film is two sleek-looking black Ospreys dashing across the sky to save the day or something like that. What you don't see is the dozens of lives and $30 billion in development costs necessary to bring you that Michael Bay eye candy, nor the paper trail of what is undoubtedly the biggest boondoggle/white elephant/choose your metaphor in recent history. Bill Proxmire might need to crawl through the Earth to hand the entire project a special edition of his Golden Fleece awards.
The V-22 was borne of an idea that has danced magically in the minds of the military for more than five decades: something that can take off vertically (eliminating the need for a runway) and hover over a battlefield like a helicopter while retaining the speed and range of a fixed-wing aircraft. Money was shoveled into black holes like the X-22 project and the more recent XV-15 (the immediate forerunner of the V-22) with no feasible solution to the problems inherent in the tiltrotor design. Give the Army folks credit for one thing: they refuse to allow reality or staggering costs to impede their vision.
Encouraged (for some reason) by the XV-15 test program, Congress allocated a development budget of $2.5 billion for the production V-22 in 1986. Within two years, the project's costs managed to climb to $30 billion. To his credit, then-Defense Secretary Cheney zeroed out the budget on what was clearly going to become a monument to cost overruns, but Congress pressed ahead with funding thanks to the enormous political influence of primary contractors Boeing and Bell Helicopter.
The early years of the program were hounded by the enormous technical complexity of the aircraft and the growing realization that the production models would be ass-breakingly expensive. Faced with a massive budget and a design that, well, simply didn't seem to work, so began a decade of follies.
1991: Early tests result in the complete destruction of the first prototype aircraft, which cannot maintain level flight (fun video here; the pilot survived).
1992: Hoping to shore up support in Congress, the military arranges a Dog-and-Pony Show test flight for a Congressional audience. The V-22 plunges into the Potomac in front of the horrified Congressmen, killing 7 military crewmen.
April 2000: A "production-ready" V-22 undergoing low-altitude testing of a simulated rescue descends uncontrollably, explodes, and kills 19 military personnel.
December 2000: Inherent flaws in the hydraulics of the rotating engines cause a V-22 to become unresponsive during a test and fall from the sky, killing all four crewmen.
Based on this track record of success and flying colors (i.e. $30 billion in sunk costs and 30 dead bodies) the V-22 was greenlit for full production and roll-out in 2006. So yes, our fighting men and women in the Gulf are saddled with this death trap. Metaphors about good money chasing bad come to mind. True to form, it stalled out and had to make an emergency landing on its first trans-oceanic flight, it has proven remarkably adept at developing uncontrolled engine fires, and it is so poorly designed that the Marines grounded the entire fleet less than 6 months after taking delivery. Nice.
So why has the military pursued this project so doggedly? Surely it fills a vital need in our nation's defense infrastructure. Well, not so much. The program's proponents (read: Bell, Boeing, and those they've managed to buy in the military chain of command) call the aircraft a resounding success in that it surpasses the performance of the helicopter it is intended to replace, the 40 year-old CH-46 Sea Knight. That is, in case you're wondering, exactly like trumpeting the virtues of your new Playstation 3 by pointing out how much better it is than your Colecovision. Congratulations, guys. 25 years and $30 billion in development, and you finally made a product that's better than a Vietnam-era helicopter. Well…..sort of.
The V-22 is actually quite inferior to its ancient predecesor. You see, while it is faster in level flight, the good folks at Bell/Boeing never quite worked out a lot of the bugs in the hovering process. Namely, they have yet to conquer the laws of physics and a phenomenon called Vortex Ring State inherent in the twin-rotor design. The only way to keep the V-22 under control in hover/descent is to descend very, very slowly. It also can't engage in any evasive maneuvers in hover mode. In other words, it has to descend very slowly and perfectly level. Oh, and because the final product far exceeded the initial weight estimates, it carries no armaments of any kind – no defensive or offensive weapons. Metaphors about seated ducks spring to mind. Ever read the book or seen the film "Black Hawk Down"? Do I need to explain why this is a useless piece of hardware?
Its massive tiltrotors also preclude the standard Army/Marines practice of exiting helicopters via ropes and side doors. The only available exit on the V-22 is the rear and utilizing it requires the use of parachutes. Once on the ground, the enormous turboprop engines are so loud that soldiers can only communicate via hand signals* and the "propwash" (downforce from the spinning rotors) is so intense that ground troops can be blown over and pinned to the ground. This latter feature also renders the V-22 useless for rescue roles. While helicopters are adept at plucking flood victims from rivers, the V-22 would just drown them.
So after 25 years and untold billions of tax dollars, our soldiers have been rewarded with an unarmed, stationary target for RPGs that they can't get out of very quickly and near which they can't function or communicate. As an added bonus, the engines occasionally explode in flames and the laws of physics randomly pluck a V-22 out of the sky now and then. But other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln? I kid, I kid. Aside from the fact that it is unmaneuverable, awkward, obscenely expensive, defenseless, and prone to crashing, it really is pretty swell.
Job well done, military-industrial complex! Job well done. Since I'm sure that the failure to provide you with all this important background information was an innocent omission from the Transformers film, I'll direct you to some additional reading. The 2007 Congressional Research Service report does an irritatingly neutral job of documenting the program's history. The notoriously pro-military website Blackfive has a piece entitled "The V-22: A plane or a boondoggle?" that I find quite thorough, as is Wired Magazine's "Saving the Pentagon's Killer Chopper-Plane."
*Anecdotally, I had the experience of having a V-22 fly overhead at a very low altitude during a test flight out of Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. It was beyond any doubt the loudest thing I've ever heard. It exceeded the volume I experienced at the legendary 1995 Ministry concert at the Aragon Brawlroom, the "Hearing Damage" show during which Al Jourgensen allegedly had his stage monitors set at 125 dB.