Thursday, June 14, 2012

Filthy zerks

OK, I admit it; I picked the title for this post mostly because I've always wanted to use the word "zerk" in a blog post title.

But bear with me, because I do have a cunning plan here.

The origin of this post came from something Ed posted over at Gin & Tacos about a USAF Class A mishap. Seems that the zoomies lost a V-22 "Osprey" tilt-rotor transport down in Florida the other day and Ed was harkening back to the halcyon days of his blog-youth when he called down fire and rain on the V-22 for being a massive boondoggle.

It got me thinking to the military kit I've encountered that smelled suspiciously like the someones involved in getting a hold of it had more in mind than getting there fustest with the mostest.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the M792 GAMA Goat ambulance.

I've never really figured out who thought these big bastards were a good idea. They were ginormous, slow, and clumsy. The motor was decent - a three-cylinder Detroit diesel - but the rest of the contraption was a mechanic's nightmare.

They were supposed to be amphibious, so the entire bottom was sealed outside of a couple of screw-in drain plugs. Which made any maintenance that required access to the bottom of the vehicle a frigging huge pain in the ass. The main wiring harness ran underneath the engine block, so if you ever developed a problem with an electrical line you had to pull the entire fuckin' power pack! To make matters worse it didn't float, really; the rubber seal on the tailgate split or tore within hours of leaving the factory, so the thing was always a danger of going to Davy Jones' Locker, while it "swam" by spinning it's tires as paddlewheels which worked about as well as you'd think.

The thing had no spare (the tires and wheels were too freaking huge to carry one) and if you flatted the idea was that you dragged out this "bridge kit" which locked the back part to the front - though it looked like a truck-and-trailer the Goat was actually one vehicle that had a universal joint in the middle - took off one of the back tires from the tractor to replace the flat, put the tractor in 6WD and drove away.

But damn GAMA Goat's the worst feature was the carrier bearing.

The bottom is sealed, remember? So the driveshaft to the rear wheels ran in a channel in the bottom of the trailer from the universal joint to the rear differential. It had a single bearing between the U-joint and the diff, mounted in a metal housing that stuck down below the trailer floor.

The bearing was just a regular old bearing of no particular distinction, and being underneath a tactical truck it tended to get filthy dirty. It was hard to reach - you had to crawl under the trailer to get to it. So drivers doing PMCS tended to skip lubing the carrier bearing. Even if you took the time to get under the damn trailer the grease fitting - the proper name for those little nipple things are "zerks" - tended to be caked with glaur, or had been banged on something and wouldn't take the grease gun nozzle. So the bearing tended to get dry and crusty. And then...

That was brought home to me in a particularly painfully embarrassing way when the carrier bearing of HQ-52 burned up like a vampire under a sunlamp and locked the entire rear driveshaft up tight just as I was crossing the swing bridge at Pedro Miguel Locks one lovely winter afternoon in 1986.

Well, THAT sucked.

The truck was stuck, and so was the bridge, and the entire crew of the Polish freighter waiting for the locks to open ambled over to laugh at the imperialist Yankee scum and his broken-down Goat. The lock-keeper went berserk in Panamanian, and the convoy commander detailed me to wait with the vehicle until the battalion's five-ton wrecker could drive all the way over from the Westside to tow me home.

Because, you see, military equipment tends to live a hard life; it's called upon to go places and do things no sensible civilian equipment would think of. So it makes sense to try and keep that equipment as simple and robust as possible. The M782's carrier bearing violated that rule. And I payed for it that day. Imagine if I'd been racing to pick up wounded men in combat. It doesn't pay to think about. Men would have died because of that damn carrier bearing, the operators who didn't maintain it, and the people who designed and fielded that vehicle.

Now the MV-22 is a just a VSTOL transport; in effect, a sort of quasi-helicopter. The way I see it the only real advantage it has over the current fleet of USMC rotary-wing aircraft is the in-flight speed.

But in my opinion the in-flight speed requirement is the weakest argument for the aircraft. I don't see that it has ever really been proven to be critical to the design – i.e., the USMC has never really explained why the 100-knot increase in maximum speed over the helos is that important.

Supposedly it's because it allows the V-22 to keep pace with fast movers, but since when in the past sixty-some years have our transport aircraft required fighter escorts?

Seems to me that this is really a macguffin. The guys want this thing because it's just flat-out, stomp-down fuckin' COOL.

And that's when I start thinking about carrier bearings.

Because I think the other issue - the bigger, eventually murderous issue - about the MV-22 that's going to bite the USMC and the aircraft's other users in the ass is that the tilt-rotors are going to prove to be a maintenance nightmare that will become a monster as these airframes age. Mission capable rate is already low – below 60% between FY09 and FY12 for the USMC, and combat equipment gets used hard, and fiddly bits like the tilt-rotors tend to age poorly. The maintenance estimates for the V-22 fleet has just been bumped up over 60%, and IMO this is waaaayyyyy too optimistic.

And that's just now, when everything is all shiny and new and all the grease fittings are clean. The dark days are to come, as these airframes age and the tilty bits in the rotors get worn and need more and more fixing. And we go years and years without a combat mission that required fighter escort for these transports to make everyone wonder why they seemed so important. And the cost of each aircraft goes up and the numbers of the mission-capable units go down and...

In the end it isn't that the USMC and the USAF and their contractors are jonesing for these things. I was a GI, and GIs, even and sometimes especially commissioned GIs, even admirals and generals, get a hard-on for cool shit, and what's cooler than an aircraft that's like a real-life Transformer?

Nope. The thing that rings my bell is that nobody in Congress seemed or seems willing to question the entire NEED for them, or the supposed missions that can't be performed without them.

After all, it's the Congress that's supposed to be the gatekeeper for all things warlike in our country. They're supposed to debate the weighty issues of going to war and making peace, of supplying the soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen with the equipment, training, and geopolitical cunning they need to fight and win.

And it should have been the Congress to ask the hard questions; why is this aircraft necessary? What missions can it do that others cannot? Why is THIS aircraft necessary? What makes the need for speed so critical? What does this aircraft provide that another machine, or a combination of others, cannot - as, say, a helicopter can not - that will require the troopers riding in them to hope that everything works as designed and that the designs are good, that the tilt-rotors work just so all the time, every time, and that every single zerk is perfectly clean and shiny and new and smooth and full of grease.


Ael said...

To be fair, I believe that the Osprey also has a greater range than most helicopters. This is a big difference(as in "I can fly from this island to that island now")

Still, I agree that the Osprey will not age well.

Leon said...

Curious about the GAMA Goat, why not just use a M113? Weren't those slightly amphibious?

About the Osprey, very pretty and whizz-bang to look at. But I worry if one loses an engine to fluke mishap or enemy fire... You can autorotate a heli, I don't believe you can do much with the Osprey except crash.

FDChief said...

Ael: Not a bad thing to have, range...except ISTM that the MV-22 is an expensive way to get a little extra range. Why not just fly the boys in on MAC Air to the staging area? Looking back at the contingency operations we've run over the past 30-40 years or so my gut sense is that they were either long-distance strategic transport-type deals (Grenada, Panama) where the troops coming in directly from CONUS had to either airdrop or airland, or a pretty short-hop over-the-horizon type AASLT (the ridiculous landing in Somalia, the USMC in Grenada).

Again, my problem isn't with the airframe as it stands, but that nobody seems to have asked the question "What missions have we done, what missions could we do, that we would HAVE to have these A/C?"

IMO the MV-22 is a hell of a fiddly, expensive way to move joes from point A to point B. If anyone could make a case for a genuinely likely mission that wouldn't be doable without them and would be absolutely critical to do I'd be halfway convinced. But I haven't heard that case so I remain skeptical...

FDChief said...

Leon: The M581/M792 was the light MTO&E (The "J-series", if I recall correctly) answer to the transportation problem. We had them in places where the H-series mech units had either M35A1 2 1/2-ton trucks or M113 APCs. And they replaced the M718 "MUTT" (the latter-day jeep) that had been the light/airborne unit evac vehicle in the Sixties and Seventies.

They were a sort of stop-gap vehicle between the Vietnam era equipment (which was, in itself, really just the last of the WW2/Korea stuff) and the newer vehicles that we're using today, the M998 HMMWV and variants. The old Chevy CUCV - the O.D. version of the Blazer - was kind of the same idea.

I have a number of other problems with the M-22 operationally.

Apparently it has a hell of a hard time going from level flight to a hover and once in a hover it is supposed to be pretty tender, so you can't really come in hard and flare like a helo. Low and slow = RPG bait, IMO.

It's tremendously LOUD. GIs I've talked to say that you can hear the fucker coming long before it gets there.

The rotor wash is incredible, and throws up a hell of a dust cloud and can even knock you over.

Like I said to Ael; I agree that there's a case to be made for these A/C. But I just haven't heard it, and the costs seem to me to be perilously close to outweighing the benefits. But I don't know; that's why I'd like to think that my elected reps - the guys who DO get briefed and who, supposedly DO know, are asking the questions they should. I just really wonder...

teo said...

"why is this aircraft necessary? What missions can it do that others cannot? Why is THIS aircraft necessary? What makes the need for speed so critical?"

Well it provides a lot of money to all the people who matter and need need that money. That is its primary mission and it seems the equipment fulfills all the necessary requirements.
What is really harder to understand -"What missions can it do that others cannot?" - is why not steal the money by using a workable equipment.
And if you think about it the answer is quite logical.
You simply can't steal those amounts of money by mascarading a helicopter production. Many other producers exist, the price levels are quite well known, it's harder to simply invoice billions upon billions for equipments which obviously don't cost that much.
Theft becomes obvious.
But Osprey is unique, so you can invoice as much as the state can pay. And then some more. The fact that it is useless in a military sense is absolutely secondary it seems.

FDChief said...

teo: The thing is, I can see how the combination of range and speed might be a good thing, say, for a smaller nation that didn't have the blue-water Navy the U.S. has and needed to project it's troops out aways without the sorts of heavy-duty logistical CS/CSS tail we can provide.

But we have so many other ways to do the stuff this A/C does and without the fiddly tilt-rotor nuisance that will become a bigger nuisance over time...

So, like I say - I don't get it, and the implications are what you've detailed - that this is as much a get-rich scheme as it is a workable weapons system.

I hate to think that, but absent some hard answers to hard questions, you gotta wonder...