The V-22 Osprey is getting topped-off with a new capability. An aerial refuelling system is being developed for the tilt-rotor aircraft, turning the cargo and personnel carrier into a tanker that can provide fuel to other aircraft, mid-flight.
"The aerial refueling capability is going to be the next thing," for the Osprey, Maj. Douglas Thumm, the plans officer for the V-22 at Headquarters Marine Corps, said.
The Osprey's tanker system is in the early stages of development and won't be ready until 2017, he said.
When operational, the V-22 could refuel the Corps' fleet of aircraft, including the new F-35B Lightning II. It could also rendezvous with ground vehicles, land, and fill them up, Thumm said. Many of the Corps' ground vehicles can run on aviation fuel, he said.
This new capability will extend the range of combat aircraft without having to turn to other services or allies for aerial refueling, according to the Corps' 10-year aviation plan released this fall.
This will make the air combat element more independent and flexible since it won't have to rely on other services' tankers, and because the Osprey doesn't require a well-developed airstrip like fixed-wing aircraft, Thumm said.
A prototype refueling system was tested in August, 2013 in Texas. In that evaluation, an Osprey equipped with tanks and a refueling hose flew as fighters trailed behind it. The aircraft "safely deployed, held stable, and retracted the refueling drogue as an F/A-18C and an F/A-18D Hornet flew just behind and to the side of the aircraft," Boeing, one of the companies that created the V-22, reported in a news release.
Boeing deferred questions to its partner, Bell Helicopter Textron, Inc. Bell, in turn, referred questions back to Boeing.
Giving the V-22 this new capability won't pigeon-hole the aircraft as a tanker and the Osprey will primarily be used to fly Marines and their gear. The tanker system is a piece of roll-on, roll-off equipment that will be temporarily installed on a particular aircraft, allowing it to switch between different types of missions, Thumm said.
"What's most important is Marines getting in and out of the zone with the equipment that they need. Second, it's being able to support those Marines, and a part of that is the Joint Strike Fighter and the close air support that they provide, and us giving gas to the Joint Strike Fighter helps that," Thumm said.
The tanker system's drogue will descend from the Osprey's hatch to the aircraft that will be refeuled. Pictures of test flights show the system using a flexible hose, rather than a rigid boom, to connect the V-22 tanker to other aircraft.
The tanker capability is one of the latest modifications to the V-22. Since it entered operations in 2007, the Corps has added an optional belly-mounted machine gun to the aircraft, and they're now trying to develop a missile system to increase the Osprey's firepower.
The Corps' increased use of Special Purpose – Marine Air-Ground Task Forces is driving the demand for V-22s with more capabilities, officials said.