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 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.