It was June 12 in the Sangin Valley in southern Afghanistan. U.S. Marines had been fighting the Taliban all day and had suffered heavy casualties, including two killed. Several resupply convoys had been turned back by enemy attack. The Marines were running low on food, water, ammunition and medical supplies.
That’s when the Marines’ V-22 Osprey tiltrotor swooped in, carrying life-saving supplies — and machine gun fire.
What happened over the next five minutes or so highlights the incredible bravery of Marine air crews and the Corps’ growing confidence in the accident-prone, maintenance-intensive V-22, which takes off and lands like a helicopter but cruises like an airplane thanks to its rotating engine nacelles. But the incident in Sangin also underscores the continuing vulnerability of the lightly armed Osprey, after efforts to beef up the V-22?s armament failed.
The Osprey’s four-man crew from Tiltrotor Squadron 264, based in North Carolina — pilots Capts. Thomas Keech and Matthew Cave, crew chief Sgt. Justin Barfield-Smith and Cpl. John Cederhol, the gunner — played an active combat role even before the tiltrotor landed in Sangin. Flying over the valley in airplane mode, the aviators noted the locations of Taliban fighters and radioed them to other aircraft — AH-1 Cobra gunships, apparently — that attacked the Taliban with rockets.
Landing near the embattled Marine infantry, the V-22 immediately came under fire — a terrifying prospect for an aircraft with very little armor. Keech and Cave called in covering fire while Barfield-Smith and Cederhol leaped from the Osprey’s rear ramp and helped the ground troops unload the supplies. The V-22 couldn’t really fire back on its own: It had just a single machine gun (either a .50-caliber or .30-caliber model) fitted to the rear ramp, covering an approximately 120-degree arc behind the aircraft — an arc that, at the moment, was blocked by Marines rushing to and from the cabin.
For the three minutes that the V-22 was on the ground and under fire, everything seemed to move in slow motion, Keech and Cave told the Jacksonville Daily News. When the last crate was out of the hold, the V-22 lifted off. Barfield-Smith spotted Taliban fighters and Cederhol shot at them using the ramp gun. It was the first time a Marine Osprey had fired its gun in combat.
Back in North Carolina this month, the Marine Corps awarded the four aviators medals acknowledging their bravery. Cederhol was humble. “I may have been the first [to fire the gun],” he said, “but I won’t be the last.”
The Osprey wasn’t supposed to enter combat so lightly armed. Many other large rotorcraft have guns installed on their side doors in addition to a gun on the rear ramp, allowing them to lay down suppressive fire over a much wider arc. But the Osprey’s rotating nacelles block the sides, making door guns impossible and leaving it with just the ramp gun. To compensate, BAE Systems designed a plug-in belly turret fitted with a .30-caliber mini-gun. A crew chief controls the turret from a console inside the cabin. But the turret is heavy and unwieldy, and most squadrons opt not to use it. The four-man crew in Sangin was armed only with their ramp gun.
The V-22 will probably never be more heavily armed than it already is. And being made mostly of lightweight composites with just a dab of Kevlar, it’s not terribly well armored, either. But that’s not stopping the Marines from sending the Osprey into even the most dangerous situations, however. Before the June battle, Tiltrotor Squadron 264 had specialized in “night inserts,” speeding small groups of Marines deep into Taliban territory under the cover of darkness.
The Osprey accomplished these missions despite an accident rate several times higher than the Marines will admit, and despite engines that wear out faster than expected, resulting in a recent 60 percent increase in maintenance costs. For all the Osprey’s faults, the Corps loves the ungainly bird — so much so it wants to spend at least $8 billion on another 120 of them from manufacturers Bell and Boeing.
Tiltrotor Squadron 264?s deployment to Afghanistan produced at least one combat first and four medals for valor, but it wasn’t without tragedy. Just a few weeks after the Sangin battle, crew chief Sgt. Thomas J. Dudley was killed after falling from the open ramp of a V-22 in mid-flight. It’s unclear if his fall was caused by any further deficiency in the Osprey’s design. As of October, Dudley’s death was still being investigated.