TOPICS > Nation

Commandant James Jones

January 22, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Now, for the Marine Corps perspective. Commandant James Jones joins us. Welcome to the program, sir.

GEN. JAMES JONES: Thank you, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: If you had to give a diagnostic overview, a state-of-the-program today, how would you describe the Osprey?

GEN. JAMES JONES: Well, I think the Osprey is, first of all, not a new technology. This particular airplane has been flying for over 11 years. The V-style concept goes back to almost 1953 with the XV-3 and more recently its precursor, the XV-15 back to 1977. So we have many years of data on this kind of technology. Most of the difficulties that have been associated with the program over the 11 years that this type of airplane has been flying have been not related to the tilt rotor technology itself but other ancillary events that have caused mishaps. Statistically it is within the norms of other new-type airplanes that come on line, and I won’t bore you with those details. But in the experimental phases, there are tragically accidents that happen. And in the operational phase — we continue with every aircraft we bring in to our inventory to experiment, and we learn more as we go along. That doesn’t make it a test model flown by test pilots in the production phase. So simply put, the tilt rotor technology is not nearly as new as it is being portrayed. So far, the accidents that have happened are not necessarily linked to tilt rotor technology but other problems that can be and have been resolved.

RAY SUAREZ: In the phase before an aircraft comes into general production, as we are in with the Osprey, do you have to set the bar in a different place during testing for a troop transport vehicle as opposed to, let’s say, a jet fighter which, if one of those tragedies occurs and it goes down, you lose two people, it’s terrible but it’s quite different from the 24 that you might lose for an Osprey crash.

GEN. JAMES JONES: Of course. Of course. I think that any commander and anyone in charge of the operational tests and evaluation phase of particularly transport airplanes wants to make sure that the aircraft is as safe as possible before you put troops in it. Unfortunately, we did not guess right on the Marana crash, but that again was not a technology-related crash as far as we’ve been able to determine.

RAY SUAREZ: What’s your reaction to the latest word that Lieutenant Colonel Leberman was asking his subordinates to report other than accurately on the maintenance record of this aircraft?

GEN. JAMES JONES: It’s very disturbing to hear of such a report. Obviously upon hearing of it, we ordered the IG down to investigate and either substantiate or not the allegations. It is particularly disturbing in an organization like the United States Marine Corps, which prides itself on integrity and truthfulness. There is no program that I know of that would justify anyone to make false statements concerning readiness of a program. This is peacetime. We don’t have to do that. The most important thing is the safety of our Marines. Whether it’s in the air, on land or at sea, that is job one for any commander. So this will be looked at appropriately and we’ll come to the conclusions that we have to draw from this lesson including looking at ourselves to see what it is that might cause our commanders to feel or a commander to feel that he would have to do something like that.

RAY SUAREZ: In the same letter wherein the mechanic blows the whistle, he says, this plane is not ready for the fleet. When you hear from somebody sort of at ground zero who is telling you that, what do you have… Do you have to listen to that and pay close attention to that?

GEN. JAMES JONES: Absolutely we have to. One of the first things we did is, in telling the IG to go down to look at this is to also stop the release — which we were almost ready to do on the December crash — and make sure that the allegations that are contained in that package that we received did not in any way materially affect either that crash or the crash that preceded it in Marana. This will be a fairly easy thing to do, I think. To see whether there was a connection or not. And we’ll just wait and see. But I will not announce the formal causes of that accident until we’re sure that either the allegations can be proven or refuted, as the case may be.

RAY SUAREZ: For his part, Lieutenant Colonel Leberman, I understand, has admitted the information contained in the mechanic’s report. But will your investigation go over his head to see if he was getting pressure from superiors to help defend this program?

GEN. JAMES JONES: Absolutely. We will investigate this not in limited fashion but in an unlimited fashion to make sure that all throughout the chain of command people have acted properly, and I’m confident that we’ll do a very thorough investigation that will be fully open and vetted in the public domain because of the people’s right to know.

RAY SUAREZ: How do you respond to the critiques that we just heard earlier about the engineering, the design, the field problems that this aircraft is experiencing?

GEN. JAMES JONES: Well, this airplane has been looked at in over seven costs and operational effectiveness analyses since its inception. It has been studied. It has been delayed. It has even been canceled, but each time, it has survived the critics because of its enormous potential, a potential that really transcends, Ray, the military community and extends, in my judgment, into the commercial sector as well. When you think of the potential benefits to our industrial base by being able to market this kind of technology, it’s going to be, I think, a very big addition to reducing our crowded airways over our airports and the like. The military application though is beyond question: Twice as fast, three times the pay load, five times the range of any comparable helicopter. This enables not only Marines but members of the special operation forces and our Navy, who are also buyers in this program, to do things that we’ve never been able to do in a much more unlimited way against the threat and… face in the future. So, as someone who is an advocate for safety and in preserving the lives and the risk we subject our troops to, to have a technologically advanced capability to do this is exactly what we should do — but not simply because it’s a program that we have fallen in love with. In 1954, the Department of Defense had over 770 airplane accidents. In the year 2000, it had 24. That’s what technology can do for you. But yet over those 770 accidents, all were regretted and all were unforeseen and on airplanes that we thought were safe, and humans did their best to make safe. But the fact is that this is… flying still has a certain amount of risk to it. It takes heroes to do it. We mourn their losses. We grieve for their families, but nonetheless, in the final analysis we have to do what’s best for our troops, what’s best for our military and what’s the safest thing that we can send our troops in harm’s way if they have to go there and bring them back alive.

RAY SUAREZ: Briefly and to close, do you feel confident sitting here today in January 2001 that this aircraft will go into full production?

GEN. JAMES JONES: I’m confident in the technology. I’m confident in the research that’s gone into it. I’m confident in the people that advise me with regard to the potential of this airplane, but we are not going to do anything reckless. We are not going to expose our pilots or our crew chiefs or our crew members or our Marines unnecessarily. If at the end of the evaluation period not only the IG, but the accident report and more importantly I think the blue ribbon panel that Secretary Cohen convened, we will take a measured look — and I’m reasonably confident that this technology is going to be a boon to our military. It will be a boon to our industrial base and will bring a great new concept into aviation.

RAY SUAREZ: Commandant Jones, thank for being with us.

GEN. JAMES JONES: Thank you very much, Ray.