SLUG: 5-48667 Osprey / Cheney DATE: NOTE NUMBER:









INTRO: President-elect George Bush campaigned for office on the need for a strong military, increased defense spending and a new generation of weapons technology. But V-O-A Pentagon Correspondent Alex Belida reports one of the first military questions the Bush administration will face is whether to go ahead with full-scale production of a revolutionary new Marine Corps aircraft.

TEXT: Top Marine Corps officials say they are not worried about the future of the Osprey - the revolutionary tilt-rotor aircraft that is a centerpiece of future Marine combat strategy.

But two deadly crashes of test models this year, including one that claimed four lives in mid-December, have left some defense analysts predicting the Osprey program could be in for a rough and possibly fatal ride in the new year.

Added to these predictions is a new political factor: the vice president-elect, Dick Cheney, is a former defense secretary who originally opposed initial funding for development of the Osprey.

The current defense secretary, William Cohen, has appointed an independent review panel to assess the tilt-rotor program.

In his tasking to panel members, Mr. Cohen says the plane's accidents and other testing issues mandate a probe. He says the specific areas to be reviewed include engineering and design, production and quality control, training, performance, and flight safety.

The panel has been asked to complete its review as soon as possible. But no one expects it to be completed before President-elect Bush takes office in late January, meaning the ultimate decision on a go-ahead for full production of the aircraft will be his.

Meanwhile the Marines are conducting their own accident investigation in the wake of the latest Osprey crash, which occurred in North Carolina. The four fatalities included the Marine's most experienced Osprey pilot who managed to get off a brief distress call before the aircraft plunged to the ground and exploded in flames.

Despite the accident, the chief of Marine Corps aviation, Lieutenant General Fred McCorkle, says he does not think the program is in trouble.


Look at this as a no-brainer. What airplane have we ever come up with that's two and a half times as fast as the airplane that it's replacing, that carries four times as much, that goes five times as far, and is an absolutely spectacular leap in technology? I just don't - I don't see being paranoid about losing the airplane.


Most Marine aviators agree. They maintain they still have confidence in the Osprey, which is intended to replace a variety of aging Marine helicopters and transport planes.

The Marines would like to acquire 360 Ospreys, which fly like an airplane but take off and land like a helicopter. The total cost is estimated at about 40-billion dollars.

Cost was one of the key factors in the past opposition shown to the Osprey by Vice President-elect Cheney when he served as defense secretary.

His opposition led to confrontations with Congress, which provided funding for the program despite Mr. Cheney's complaints. He charged the funding was approved over his wishes not because of legitimate defense needs but rather because of politics, including the factor of where components of the Osprey would be built and how much income that would generate in individual states.

One of the states where key work will be done on the aircraft is Texas, home state of President-elect George W. Bush. Defense analysts are already predicting that may dampen Mr. Cheney's continued opposition. (Signed)