It's hard to imagine an American weapons program so fraught with problems that Dick Cheney would try repeatedly to cancel it hard, that is, until you get to know the Osprey. As Defense Secretary under George H.W. Bush, Cheney tried four times to kill the Marine Corps's ungainly tilt-rotor aircraft. Four times he failed. Cheney found the arguments for the combat troop carrier unpersuasive and its problems irredeemable. "Given the risk we face from a military standpoint, given the areas where we think the priorities ought to be, the V-22 is not at the top of the list," he told a Senate committee in 1989. "It came out at the bottom of the list, and for that reason, I decided to terminate it." But the Osprey proved impossible to kill, thanks to lawmakers who rescued it from Cheney's ax time and again because of the home-district money that came with it and to the irresistible notion that American engineers had found a way to improve on another great aviation breakthrough, the helicopter.
Now the aircraft that flies like an airplane but takes off and lands like a chopper is about to make its combat debut in Iraq. It has been a long, strange trip: the V-22 has been 25 years in development, more than twice as long as the Apollo program that put men on the moon. V-22 crashes have claimed the lives of 30 men 10 times the lunar program's toll all before the plane has seen combat. The Pentagon has put $20 billion into the Osprey and expects to spend an additional $35 billion before the program is finished. In exchange, the Marines, Navy and Air Force will get 458 aircraft, averaging $119 million per copy.
The saga of the V-22 the battles over its future on Capitol Hill, a performance record that is spotty at best, a long, determined quest by the Marines to get what they wanted demonstrates how Washington works (or, rather, doesn't). It exposes the compromises that are made when narrow interests collide with common sense. It is a tale that shows how the system fails at its most significant task, by placing in jeopardy those we count on to protect us. For even at a stratospheric price, the V-22 is going into combat shorthanded. As a result of decisions the Marine Corps made over the past decade, the aircraft lacks a heavy-duty, forward-mounted machine gun to lay down suppressing fire against forces that will surely try to shoot it down. And if the plane's two engines are disabled by enemy fire or mechanical trouble while it's hovering, the V-22 lacks a helicopter's ability to coast roughly to the ground something that often saved lives in Vietnam. In 2002 the Marines abandoned the requirement that the planes be capable of autorotating (as the maneuver is called), with unpowered but spinning helicopter blades slowly letting the aircraft land safely. That decision, a top Pentagon aviation consultant wrote in a confidential 2003 report obtained by TIME, is "unconscionable" for a wartime aircraft. "When everything goes wrong, as it often does in a combat environment," he said, "autorotation is all a helicopter pilot has to save his and his passengers' lives."