COVID-19 is already causing many countries to reassess their defence spending – and for the second time this year Indonesia has indicated further cuts will be necessary.  Furthermore, the reductions will not come in personnel numbers or salaries so the only remaining areas for savings are acquisition and support.

PHILIPPINE SEA (April 27, 2020) Marines assigned to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) embark an MV-22B Osprey assigned to the 31st MEU, Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 265 (Reinforced), aboard the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jomark A. Almazan)

Against this financially gloomy backdrop, on July 6 the U.S. State Department notified Congress of a possible sale of eight MV-22 Block C Osprey tiltrotors to Indonesia at a total cost of $2 billion.  This amount is close to the country’s entire yearly acquisition budget – and so there must be serious questions about whether the deal will actually go ahead.

Make no mistake, Ospreys are formidable aircraft for delivering troops into combat over considerable distances and at a speed greater than what can be achieved with a helicopter.  This is done by a unique hybrid twin engine design that allows the two huge 3-blade rotors to operate in the horizontal plane for vertical lift and then move into a conventional aircraft configuration for long distance, high speed travel.

H225M Caracal ready for troop loading. (Airbus Helicopters photo)

However, this comes at a high cost of around $70 million per aircraft and – because of their mechanical complexity – a significant maintenance footprint as well.  Each Osprey can carry up to 30 heavily armed troops – though 24 would be a more usual number – and have been ordered by the U.S. and Japan.  Calculations of parameters such as top speed and range depend on a number of variables, most importantly how much the aircraft is carrying.  To compare them with a transport helicopter such as the EC735/H225M Caracal – of which Indonesia has 9 on order – is fraught, but an Osprey can probably travel 20% further and 40% faster with a similar load.

But just for the acquisition cost, for each Osprey you can buy three Caracals – and in addition their support costs are significantly lower. This gives rise to the obvious question: would Indonesia be better off with eight Ospreys or an extra 24 Caracals – and the answer heavily favours the much larger number of conventional helicopters. The situation becomes even more confusing because the notification to Congress is not only the MV-22s but also a large number of other systems:

Twenty-four (24) AE 1107C Rolls Royce Engines; twenty (20) AN/AAQ-27 Forward Looking InfraRed Radars; twenty (20) AN/AAR-47 Missile Warning Systems; twenty (20) AN/APR-39 Radar Warning Receivers; twenty (20) AN/ALE-47 Countermeasure Dispenser Systems; twenty (20) AN/APX-117 Identification Friend or Foe Systems (IFF); twenty (20) AN/APN-194 Radar Altimeters; twenty (20) AN/ARN-147 VHF Omni­Directional Range (VOR) Instrument Landing System (ILS) Beacon Navigation Systems; forty (40) ARC-210 629F-23 Multi-Band Radios (Non-COMSEC); twenty (20) AN/ASN-163 Miniature Airborne Global Positioning System (GPS) Receivers (MAGR); twenty (20) AN/ARN-153 Tactical Airborne Navigation Systems; twenty (20) Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems (TCAS II); twenty (20) M-240-D 7.64mm Machine Guns; twenty (20) GAU-21 Machine Guns; Joint Mission Planning Systems (JMPS) with unique planning components; publications and technical documentation; aircraft spares and repair parts; repair and return; aircraft ferry services; tanker support; support and test equipment; personnel training and training equipment; software; U.S. Government and contractor engineering, logistics, and technical support services; and other elements of technical and program support.

That seems a lot of extra hardware for eight Ospreys – but perhaps Indonesia has in mind the possibility of ordering even more of them.

The mystery deepens because Boeing – the manufacturer of the Osprey – referred all questions about the possible purchase to the U.S. State Department, which might be an indicator that they know very little about the substance of the deal.

There has been some speculation that the Indonesian military has been attracted to MV-22s because in the face of Chinese aggression they could quickly deploy a force to the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea.  But even if all 8 Ospreys were continually in use and could undertake a number of ferry missions, the number of troops that might be fielded quickly is relatively small and probably strategically insignificant when compared with the size and strength of the PLA(N) amphibious assault force.

A more probably use would be for West Papua, with a restive independence movement and a low-key insurgency that has been bubbling away for years.  Even if this is the case, a larger number of conventional helicopters looks to be a more cost effective and balanced solution – especially as there might be more COVID-19 budget cuts to come.

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