Mattis: What DoD Readiness Problems? (Shush: Bad Guys Are Listening!)

Defense Secretary James N. Mattis meets with Norwegian Minister of Defense Frank Bakke-Jensen at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Mar. 20, 2018.
Defense Department / Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith.

In a move that has not decreased the number of military planes and helicopters crashing, Defense Secretary James Mattis has been discouraging the services from talking about how bad readiness is, leading the parent of at least one dead service member to call his arguments “a bunch of junk.”

Amid more frequent stories of aviation mishaps and training fatalities, Task & Purpose has learned that overall Pentagon readiness levels were so bad when Mattis became defense secretary, he instructed the military branches to “be cautious about publicly telegraphing readiness shortfalls.” That’s from a March 2, 2017, email to DoD communications staff promulgating “some guidance from Secretary Mattis,” according to its sender, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, then director of Pentagon public affairs.

“While it can be tempting during budget season to publicly highlight readiness problems, we have to remember that our adversaries watch the news too,” Davis wrote the email, obtained by Task & Purpose. “Communicating that we are broken or not ready to fight invites miscalculation.”

The email, whose existence was first revealed last year by The National Interest, assured the military services that both Mattis and elected leaders in Congress and the White House were aware of the problems they faced.

“They don't need news stories to remind them,” Davis wrote. “Help is on the way.”

The issue has come to a head as reporters ask the DoD for answers to their growing aviation crisis. Military Times recently pored through thousands of records to find that service aircraft crashes have soared by 40% since 2013, when steep cuts to defense spending known as “sequestration” led to a shortfall of training and spare parts.

A total of seven service members have been killed in separate crashes in the past week; another nine troops have been killed in crashes since March 14.

But the Defense Department has stuck to its line. Earlier this winter, Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White denied that the military services had been told not to talk about readiness — but repeated the talking point that skepticism about the DoD’s fitness for war emboldened U.S. adversaries.

“The secretary has said, many times, how it's very important that we not telegraph to the enemy,” White said during a Jan. 11 news conference. “American people need to know we're ready to go tonight.”

But the Pentagon’s official line about OPSEC and readiness is “a bunch of junk,” said Mike De La Cruz, who lost his son two years ago in a helicopter crash. De La Cruz said Mattis’ guidance on readiness indicates that President Trump’s cabinet is hiding exactly how much the military is hurting.

“We should be exposing everything we possibly can to the American people so that we can actually find direction and fix the issue instead of trying to cover it up,” De La Cruz said.

De La Cruz’s son, Sgt. Dillon Semolina, was one of 12 Marines killed in January 2016 when two CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters collided off Hawaii. An investigation into the crash found that readiness in his son’s squadron was so bad that there were days in December 2015 when none of its helicopters could fly due to lack of spare parts and other problems.

“If anything exposes our weaknesses it’s our [government’s] own dereliction of duty in ensuring that our aircraft are ready and that our military is ready,” he told Task & Purpose. “All it’s doing is exposing the ridiculousness of our budget and where our focus is: Let’s make sure that our National Guard gets deployed down south to protect the wall, but let’s not make sure our aircraft can fly.”

De La Cruz said he has presented the Marine Corps and members of Congress information showing that military aircraft crashes through 2016 were preventable, but so far no one has taken any action to remedy the problems he laid out.

Senior military leaders and members of Congress are blaming military pilots for crashes that are actually a result of budget problems that neither lawmakers nor the military are trying to fix, he said.

Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Marine veteran, said there is no hiding the strain that the past 17 years of combat and constant deployments have taken on the military.

“Readiness issues such as deferred maintenance, overuse of our troops and equipment, and insufficient investment end up costing us more in the long term,” Gallego, D-Ariz., told Task & Purpose on Monday. “Such problems can also cost the lives of our service members, as we have seen recently with multiple ship crashes in the Pacific. These problems need to be addressed urgently by the Defense Department and Congress.”

Former Marine Capt. Dan Grazier, who works on military reform issues for the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, said he agrees with Mattis that signaling weakness to an adversary could be dangerous, and he feels that members of Congress hyperventilate about a military readiness crisis every time something bad happens.

But Grazier said he does not believe that releasing information about plane and helicopter crashes might inadvertently trigger a war.

“I don’t think that anybody who doesn’t already have malign intent against the United States is going to say: ‘Oh, look, they’re having a lot of Class A mishaps; now is a good time to launch an attack,’” he said.


(Associated Press photo)

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Mark Esper expressed confidence on Sunday in the U.S. military justice system's ability to hold troops to account, two days after President Donald Trump pardoned two Army officers accused of war crimes in Afghanistan.

Trump also restored the rank of a Navy SEAL platoon commander who was demoted for actions in Iraq.

Asked how he would reassure countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq in the wake of the pardons, Esper said: "We have a very effective military justice system."

"I have great faith in the military justice system," Esper told reporters during a trip to Bangkok, in his first remarks about the issue since Trump issued the pardons.

Read More Show Less

On a military base, a black flag is bad news. That means it's too hot outside to do anything strenuous, so training and missions are put off until conditions improve.

As the climate changes, there could be plenty more black flag days ahead, especially in Florida, a new analysis from the Union of Concerned Scientists found. America's military bases could see an average of an extra month of dangerously hot days by mid-century. In Florida, they could quadruple.

Pentagon data shows heat-related illnesses and injuries are on the rise in every branch of the military. Last year, nearly 2,800 troops suffered heatstroke or heat exhaustion, a roughly 50 percent jump from 2014.

"I think most of us, if we hear there are tens of thousands of cases of heat stress in our troops every year, our minds would go to where they were deployed," said Kristy Dahl, a senior climate scientist at UCS and the lead author of the study. "But more than 90% of the military cases of heatstroke happened right here at home."

Read More Show Less
In this March 12, 2016, file photo, Marines of the U.S., left, and South Korea, wearing blue headbands on their helmets, take positions after landing on a beach during the joint military combined amphibious exercise, called Ssangyong, part of the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle military exercises, in Pohang, South Korea. (Associated Press/Yonhap/Kim Jun-bum)

BANGKOK (Reuters) - The United States and South Korea said on Sunday they will postpone upcoming military drills in an effort to bolster a stalled peace push with North Korea, even as Washington denied the move amounted to another concession to Pyongyang.

The drills, known as the Combined Flying Training Event, would have simulated air combat scenarios and involved an undisclosed number of warplanes from both the United States and South Korea.

Read More Show Less

An opening ceremony will be held Monday on Hawaii island for a military exercise with China that will involve about 100 People's Liberation Army soldiers training alongside U.S. Army counterparts.

This comes after Adm. Phil Davidson, head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, spoke on Veterans Day at Punchbowl cemetery about the "rules-based international order" that followed U.S. victory in the Pacific in World War II, and China's attempts to usurp it.

Those American standards "are even more important today," Davidson said, "as malicious actors like the Communist Party of China seek to redefine the international order through corruption, malign cyber activities, intellectual property theft, restriction of individual liberties, military coercion and the direct attempts to override other nations' sovereignty."

Read More Show Less

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump on Sunday told North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to "act quickly" to reach a deal with the United States, in a tweet weighing in on North Korea's criticism of his political rival former Vice President Joe Biden.

Trump, who has met Kim three times since 2018 over ending the North's missile and nuclear programs, addressed Kim directly, referring to the one-party state's ruler as "Mr. Chairman".

In his tweet, Trump told Kim, "You should act quickly, get the deal done," and hinted at a further meeting, signing off "See you soon!"

Read More Show Less