On Jan. 23, 1968, North Korean forces seized the U.S. spy ship Pueblo sailing in international waters near the communist country. U.S. Pres. Lyndon Johnson responded by sending the 7th Fleet aircraft carrier USS Enterprise into the Sea of Japan.
Problem was, the 7th Fleet also had to keep a carrier off of South Vietnam to support American troops in that embattled country. The USS Ranger was available for the task, but Navy logisticians worried they would not be able to support two separate carriers in different locations using the same infrastructure.
An ungainly new carrier-compatible cargo plane saved the day. The C-2 Greyhound, built by Grumman—now Northrop Grumman—had entered Navy service a little over a year earlier. Fifteen of the bulbous, twin-prop Greyhound were in Japan and The Philippines, from where they speedily shuttled men and urgent supplies such as weather-appropriate uniforms and spare jet engines to both Ranger and Enterprise—this despite the nearly 2,000 miles separating the flattops.
“The C-2 makes us so much more flexible that we could support three separated groups, if necessary,” boasted Rear Adm. Marshall White, commanding air forces in the Western Pacific.
Faster-flying, longer-ranged and more capacious than the predecessor C-1 cargo plane, the ungainly C-2s and their crews were the unheralded heroes of the naval crises of 1968 and countless incidents since. Produced in a second batch in the 1980s and since upgraded, today a force of 35 C-2s based in key locations allows America’s 10 carriers to range the globe, waging aerial war and responding to diplomatic crises without planners having to worry about stranding the vessels beyond range of aerial resupply.
Rarely have so few airplanes of a single—and relatively unsophisticated—type been so vitally important to the conduct of a superpower’s global affairs. “The C-2A allows carriers and the fleet to maintain a ready position by supporting the vital supply line,” says Brian Scolpino, who oversees the C-2 force for the Navy.
But the Navy could end up retiring the C-2s and replacing them with a far inferior plane—one that’s not really a plane at all, but a controversial hybrid craft. The Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey can take off vertically and cruise like an airplane thanks to its rotating wingtip engines, but lacks the C-2's far-flying efficiency and its ease of use rooted in nearly 50 years of institutional experience.
Certain key officers want to replace the C-2 with the V-22 even though the latter was never meant for the carrier logistics role and lacks the appropriate performance. Moreover, the V-22 is crash-prone, much more expensive to purchase than the C-2 and could require billions of dollars in modifications to Navy ships in order to be able to land on them.
The Pentagon is no stranger to pricey, ill-advised weapons development scheme, but even in this wasteful institution the plan to scrap the C-2 stands out as especially self-defeating. America’s world-spanning carrier fleet is one of its key advantages over its enemies. Constraining the flattops’ resupply could force them to stay closer to their home ports, reducing Washington’s options in the event of war and diminishing U.S. influence during peacetime.
Sailors call the C-2s “Cods” after their mission designation: carrier onboard delivery. Two Cod squadrons—one in California and another in Virginia—each maintain five detachments of two planes apiece. When a carrier sails on deployment, a Cod detachment goes with it, staging on the flattop’s thousand-foot deck for regular resupply flights to naval shore stations.
Powered by two turboprop engines, the C-2 with its crew of four can fly 1,500 miles with five tons of cargo or 26 passengers—or a mix of both—in its rear hold.
“The interior arrangement of the cabin can accommodate priority cargo like jet engines, passengers, litter patients and critical spare parts,” Scolpino tells War is Boring in an email, singing the veteran plane’s praises. “A cargo cage system provides restraint for loads during ship launches and landings. Straight-in rear cargo loading and unloading allows for fast turnaround on the ground or carrier flight-deck. The cargo ramp can be opened in flight, allowing for airdrops of supplies and personnel. An on-board auxiliary power unit provides aircraft self-sufficiency at remote airfields.”
Moreover, the C-2 design is actually based on the blueprints of Northrop’s E-2 carrier-based radar plane, which acts as a high-altitude sensor guarding ships at sea and directing other warplanes. The E-2 is still in production in New York after 53 years, ensuring a steady stream of affordable parts, improvements and engineering experience directly applicable to the less glamorous C-2.
Most recently, the Cods began getting the same new, more efficient, eight-blade propellers being fitted to the E-2s. Northrop has also proposed giving the C-2s engine upgrades and new cockpit systems developed for the E-2. The Cods got structural upgrades between 2005 and 2011 that extended their structural integrity to around 2027, at which point they would need to be replaced.
The C-2's effectiveness, and the fact that Northrop’s E-2 assembly line is set to keep humming for the foreseeable future, seem good reasons to eventually replace the C-2 with … the C-2, either a rebuilt version with a new wing, engines and cockpit attached to the original fuselage — or a factory-fresh model with the same enhanced design.
The Navy is well aware of the Cod’s enduring qualities. “The C-2A has not experienced any limitations as the Cod aircraft,” Scolpino writes. But concerted lobbying by the Marines and Boeing have practically forced the sailing branch to at least consider buying the V-22. If politics triumph and the tiltrotor takes the C-2's place, the fleet could find itself moving backwards in time, to a state of constrained fighting ability not unlike that that preceded the Cod’s arrival in 1966.
Scolpino clearly states that the C-2 is working just fine. But Marine Col. Greg Masiello, who manages the amphibious branch’s roughly 200 V-22s, blithely insisted to the Website Breaking Defense that the Northrop workhorse is on the verge of becoming “an obsolete carrier onboard delivery platform.”
Masiello’s idea: replace the C-2 with V-22, an aircraft no one had considered for the Cod mission until the Marines butted in. “I might be considered biased,” Masiello admitted as he declared the V-22 “an ideal platform for aerial resupply for the Navy.”
But the V-22 has less range and less payload than the C-2: Northrop’s prop plane can haul five tons of stuff 1,500 miles, but the V-22's range with the same load could be as little as 50 miles, according to Navy statistics and Bell and Boeing’s own literature. That’s in part because the V-22 has just over a third the internal space of a C-2 and in the case of bulkier supplies would likely need to haul them slung by a rope suspended from the fuselage—a huge source of drag.
War is Boring attempted to reach two different Boeing spokespeople for comment, but received no reply.
Extending the tiltrotor’s flying distance would require the constant attention of Air Force aerial tankers, which can cost up to $10,000 per hour to operate. The V-22 is also slightly slower than the C-2, can’t fly as high because it’s unpressurized and costs more: $68 million for a new V-22 compared to an estimated $50 million for a new C-2.
On top of those deficiencies, the V-22 has not been certified yet to join the Navy’s carrier air wings — those tests began this year. And the way the Marines think the V-22 would work as a Cod plane would require expensive modifications to Navy warships. The C-2 can only land on a carrier’s long deck, so cargo destined for smaller ships is transferred by helicopter from the flattop to the other vessels.
By contrast, V-22 proponents claim the tiltrotor, which lands vertically, can deliver stuff directly to the smaller ships. But the big V-22 with its extra-hot engine exhaust isn’t actually cleared to land on small ships—the vessels could require reinforcement.
Modifications to some of the Navy’s amphibious ships, meant to prepare the amphibs for the similarly hot-blowing F-35 vertical-landing fighter, cost nearly $70 million per ship—a fix that if applied to all of the Navy’s hundreds of warships so they can fully support the V-22 could easily set the Pentagon back billions of dollars.
Perhaps worst of all, the V-22 is much, much more dangerous to fly than the C-2, having killed 36 people since the early 1990s. The finicky, complex tiltrotor crashes and burns at a rate greater than the average for Marine aircraft — a fact the Corps has attempted to hide with semantics and fudged statistics.
Early-model C-2s were unreliable and crashed seven times between 1965 and 1973, claiming 64 lives. But the upgraded Cod, the one in use today, has suffered only one major accident in the 40 years since ‘73. And no one died in that 2003 incident.
The Marines are determined to foist the V-22 on the Navy for one very simple reason, it seems. The Corps apparently wants to keep the tiltrotor’s production line open and increase its throughput in order to drive down the cost of the tiltrotors the Marines are buying. “The Marines also want to sell V-22s,” an unnamed official told Breaking Defense, “and they want to push the Navy into buying V-22s.”
The Corps’ plans to procure a total of 360 V-22s—plus smaller numbers of the hybrid plane for the Air Force and, possibly, Israel—should keep the line going through the early 2020s. Adding potentially three dozen tiltrotors for the Navy to replace the C-2s could keep the factory operating at maximum efficiency in its final few years ... and make spare parts cheaper, too.
Scolpino, however, tells War is Boring that adding Navy V-22s would not affect the tiltrotor’s price for the Marine Corps—an unlikely claim given the basic economics of mass production.
The Marines’ lobbying prowess in Congress and the executive branch is legendary. The Corps, which falls under the Department of the Navy, managed to essentially hijack then Pentagon’s F-35 fighter project, forcing it to add a vertical-landing capability even though the bulky gear for such an ability detracts from the plane’s overall performance and increases its cost. Likewise, the Marines succeeded in protecting the V-22 from cancellation following a chain of bloody crashes in the 1990s and early 2000s.
The Leathernecks, as Marines are sometimes known, have already made their muscle felt in the tug of war over carrier onboard delivery. Breaking Defense reported that Marine V-22 manager Masiello has added a veteran C-2 pilot to his staff.
Navy Department employees were part of the Bell-Boeing V-22 display at the Navy League’s annual convention in Maryland in April. Scolpino defended the Navy’s presence at the tiltrotor exhibit, pointing out that the competition for a new or upgraded Cod hasn’t officially begun yet— so, presumably, it’s impossible to show favoritism.
And when the Navy test-landed a new Northrop-built drone aboard an aircraft carrier in July, the Marines arranged to fly the chief of naval operations and the secretary of the Navy to the flattop in a V-22 to witness the event. C-2s normally handle passenger service to the carriers.
Amid the Marines’ lobbying, Northrop’s position is quite plain. “The C-2’s unrefueled range, pressurization and volume capacity allow for the most reliable support to the carrier strike group,” company C-2 manager Steve Squires tells War is Boring in an email.
Cutting the lifeline
The risk in scrapping the C-2 is that Navy could find itself unable—or unable to afford—to deploy its flattops to crisis zones far from U.S. or allied shore bases. Relying on V-22s for resupply, the carriers might have to keep closer to friendly coasts.
Bizarrely, Masiello argued precisely the opposite to Breaking Defense. He pointed out that adding V-22s to the Marines’ amphibious forces has allowed the Corps to launch beach assaults from farther away than before, when Vietnam-era helicopters did all the lifting. “We’ve seen that point proven out now, we believe, on multiple … deployments,” he explained.
But it’s not fair comparing the V-22 to older Marine assault helicopters and then applying the results to the carrier onboard delivery mission. Attacking a beach and resupplying a flattop at sea are entirely different missions.
In an amphibious operation, the V-22s fly into enemy territory from just 50 miles or so offshore. In carrier ops, the whole point is to avoid the enemy’s defenses by keeping the ships deep at sea, preferably many hundreds of miles from land.
The C-2 has the range and payload to keep the carriers supplied even while they’re sailing in the middle of the world’s oceans on far-flung operations. The V-22 clearly does not—and would cost more anyways and put sailors at greater risk of crashes, all for a diminished level of capability.
The Navy’s freedom of movement—enabled since the 1960s by the cheap, rugged, reliable Cod plane—is too high a price to pay for shaving a few million bucks off the cost of a couple dozen Marine tiltrotors.
This story was edited after publication to clarify why the V-22's range is so limited. Subscribe to War is Boring: medium.com/feed/war-is-boring.