Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta shoved his head into a snug aviator helmet topped with goggles one September morning and swooped into Lower Manhattan on a V-22 Osprey, a $70 million aircraft that Marines use for battlefield assaults in Afghanistan.
“How’d you like that gizmo?” Mr. Panetta said after landing at the Wall Street heliport in the Osprey, which takes off like a helicopter, flies like an airplane — and has been responsible for the deaths of 30 people in test flights.
Defense Department officials say the hybrid aircraft was the fastest way to get Mr. Panetta and his entourage to New York that day. But anyone who has followed the tortured history of the Osprey over the past quarter-century saw the persistent, politically savvy hand of the Marines in arranging Mr. Panetta’s flight — and another example in what has become a case study of how hard it is to kill billion-dollar Pentagon programs.
“At a car dealership, what the salesman wants to do is get you inside the vehicle,” said Dakota Wood, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and defense analyst. “You take the test drive and wow, it’s got a great stereo, it feels good, it has that new-car smell.”
That flight with Mr. Panetta, he said, is “an insurance policy against future defense cuts.”
As a joint Congressional committee appears paralyzed days from a deadline to agree on a plan to cut the nation’s deficit, the Pentagon remains vulnerable to forced reductions over the next decade that would slash its spending by $500 billion, on top of $450 billion in cuts already in the works — a total of more than 15 percent of its operating budget.
But as Mr. Panetta considers scaling back major weapons programs, the Osprey illustrates the challenges in downsizing the world’s most expensive military. The aircraft has survived after repeated safety problems during testing, years of delays, ballooning costs and tough questions about its utility.
When President Bush tried to cut the Osprey program, the Marine Corps resisted:
But the Marines saw the aircraft as crucial to their survival as a quick-response, expeditionary force. In arguments they still make today, the Marines pressed their case that the Osprey could take off from aircraft carriers and get in and out of difficult landing zones better than airplanes and faster than helicopters, carry more people and save lives. In response to Mr. Cheney, they led a fierce counterattack, meeting with lobbyists and supporters in Congress in secret strategy sessions on Capitol Hill.
“It bordered on insubordination that the Marines conducted themselves the way they did,” said Richard Whittle, the author of the definitive book about the program, “The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey.”
“The secretary of defense had said, ‘We’re killing this program,’ ” Mr. Whittle said, “and the Marines were plotting behind the scenes with his opponents.”
“We pulled out all the stops,” Mr. Weldon recalled in a recent interview. The Marines now say the aircraft survived on its merits, not because they took on Capitol Hill. But their campaign was a near-legend in the industry — and could be invoked in the military budget battles to come.
Mr. Cheney eventually admitted defeat, and the Osprey endured even through its test crashes and groundings in the 1990s. By 2007 it finally went into service, in Iraq, where Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly, then the commander of the Marines in Anbar Province, oversaw the first two squadrons of Ospreys in combat. The speed of the aircraft “turned a province the size of Texas into Rhode Island,” he recalled.