Large numbers of Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft can operate from amphibious assault ships, aircraft carriers, and a range of different land locations, a circumstance that greatly enables large-scale attack and resupply missions.
An amphibious assault ship can travel with as many as twelve Osprey tiltrotor aircraft which in turn can transport large numbers of Marines—and even well-sized weapons systems such as towed artillery or Internally Transportable Vehicles— from ship to shore. Considering this ability to mass force, the fact that the Marine Corps Osprey can now also be configured as a tanker aircraft introduces a substantial new variable for maritime attack. In recent years, the Corps has built and added a V-22 Aerial Refueling System (VARS) able to support fixed-wing aircraft such as a Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet or Lockheed Martin F-35C Lightning II or helicopter such as a deck-launched Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion.
The Osprey refueler, in service now for several years, is described in the Marine Aviation Plan as “able to refuel all MAGTF (Marine Corps Air Ground Task Force) aerial refuel capable aircraft with approximately 10,000 pounds of fuel per each VARS-equipped V-22.”
What would this mean for a carrier or amphibious attack with F-35Cs or F-35Bs? It could be quite significant as it might enable a longer-range mass air attack across a wide operational area. An entire formation of F-35s could, for example, reach targets areas at more than twice the range should they have an opportunity to be refueled. The advantage here is compounded by the possibility of flying F-35Bs from amphibious ships, as they too could operate at much greater stand-off ranges if refueled from a VARS-equipped V-22.
The Navy is now flying the carrier-launched drone refueler, the MQ-25 Stingray that requires a horizontal take-off from a carrier deck. An Osprey, however, can take off vertically from an amphibious assault ship or carrier and therefore operate from a wider range of platforms. This presents an ability to mass attack using both amphibious assault ship-launched F-35Bs and carrier-launched F-35Cs.
If an Osprey has a combat radius of 450 nautical miles, an F-35 could potentially reach target areas from as far away as 1,000 miles if supported by Osprey refuelers. In this kind of scenario, the Ospreys would not have to come within hundreds of miles of the attacked area but could provide double the reach for attacking F-35s in larger numbers. This could be impactful when it comes to dwell time over targets as well, meaning refueled F-35s could remain over target areas for longer periods to engage new emerging targets or adjust as new intelligence information arrives.
This kind of operational possibility could make a big difference in the event that the U.S. and Japanese Navies need to counter a Chinese amphibious assault on Taiwan or launch some kind of attack on mainland China from stand-off distances not easily reachable by China’s DF-26 long-range anti-ship missiles. The range of China’s several supposed “carrier killer” land-fired anti-ship missiles has led many to think aircraft carriers might have trouble operating in closer proximity to Chinese shores. An Osprey refueler, however, could mean that a Carrier Air Wing or aircraft on an amphibious assault ship could succeed in projecting power from otherwise unreachable ranges, holding China at risk despite its “carrier-killer” missiles.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.