One Marine was killed and 11 others injured when a CH-53 E Super Stallion helicopter made a hard landing near Camp Lejeune, N.C., on Sept. 2, 2015. The incident was one of five aircraft training mishaps that year that left 15 Marines dead.
It was the first year since 2011 that on-duty deaths exceeded military deaths in combat. But what seemed an anomaly three years ago has become a trend, one that in 2018 seems to be gaining momentum.
In a report this week related to the National Defense Authorization Act of fiscal year 2019, lawmakers on the House Armed Service Committee said that last year nearly four times as many military personnel died in training accidents as were killed in combat.
In all, by the committee’s accounting, 21 service members died in combat while 80 died as a result of non- combat training-related accidents. And this spring alone, the report added, 25 people were killed in military aviation mishaps.
A frame from local news footage shows smoke and flames rise from a Marine Corps Kc-130 aircraft that crashed in a farm field, in Itta Bena, Miss., killing 16, on July 10, 2017Associated Press/WLBT-TV
The problem is not limited to aviation. Last August, the Navy lost 17 sailors in separate collisions involving the USS John S. McCain and the USS Fitzgerald. Navy investigators later found both accidents were related to ongoing Navy readiness problems. A month later, 14 Marines and a sailor were injured, some critically, when their amphibious assault vehicle burst into flames following an explosion during a pre-deployment training exercise at Camp Pendleton.
But most of the dramatic incidents involved aviation accidents, which according to an analysis by the Military Times news organization are at a six-year high. Overall, over the past five years, 133 troops died in aircraft training incidents.
There are about 1.3 million active duty military and another 800,000 reservists in the United States, so training doesn’t represent extreme danger. What’s more, the numbers in any single year are small enough that that can be swayed by a single big accident or spate of accidents. Still, the problems and risks in military training are common enough and systemic enough that officials are paying attention.
Lawmakers such as John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, who serves as a subcommittee chairman on the House Armed Services Committee, are asking why. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, in March handed President Donald Trump a green cap during the president’s visit to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, reading “Make the Hornet Green Again” referring to the base’s aging fleet F-18 fighter jets. Issa, who is retiring from Congress, has been pushing for funding for new equipment for years, saying recently that almost half Miramar’s F-18 fleet is “in repair.”
But military experts offer several reasons — including old equipment — for the mishaps. The deployment schedule, they say, has been stepped up, prompting training to happen faster in previous eras. Flight hours have been reduced, meaning pilots aren’t as experienced. And maintenance of aging equipment is held back because spare parts are scarce.
On May 2, Rep. Turner wrote to fellow members of the House Armed Services Sub-Committee, asking what is being done to stop the trend.
“We’re not certain that the service branches are adequately identifying the source and cause fast enough for us to be able to remedy them, putting more people at risk,” Turner told the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News. “The service branches have been too slow to respond. These are alarming trends. It’s making an unsafe environment for pilots. When we have a hearing or travel to military bases and talk to pilots, we become more and more concerned that the service branches don’t have an answer.”
Recently, Sen. McCain addressed the spike in non-combat deaths in a tweet: “With more service members dying in routine training accidents than in combat, we must do everything to ensure our military has the training, equipment & resources it needs.”
The statistics on military deaths in training and in combat aren’t always uniform. What’s more, the numbers that show training deaths vs. combat deaths can fluctuate wildly from year to year, in part because of military activity around the world and, in part, because different branches of the military report training accidents in different ways.
But, overall, the numbers point to the same trend.
In 2011, while troops were still being deployed to Afghanistan, the Pentagon reported 395 combat deaths and only two training deaths. But by 2014, as troops were pulled out of Afghanistan and Iraq, combat deaths fell to 38 and training deaths were at 15. In 2015, the numbers reversed with 15 combat deaths and 24 training deaths. In 2016, there were 16 combat deaths and 20 training fatalities. By 2017, using the congressional statistics, training deaths were at 80 and combat deaths at 21.
So far, the training death rate in 2018 seems to be on pace with 2016, a year in which 35 pilots and crew members died, according to the Military Times analysis. Since October, when the fiscal year began, there have been 15 fatal accidents. There was at least one ground incident at Camp Pendleton, in February, when a flight surgeon was struck by a helicopter’s tail rotor.
In the Navy and Marine Corps, the number of on-duty training related-mishaps resulting in injury or death has fluctuated over the years, but has spiked of late. Last year, the rate of deaths related to training mishaps was 10.49 per 100,000 Marines, up 60 percent from 2014, according to data from the Naval Safety Center, which collects information for the Marine Corps and Navy.
Since 2016, the Naval Safety Center has reported 44 aviation training mishaps, some of which resulted in deaths. Incidents ranged from a 2016 accident in which two CH-53 helicopters crashed during a training flight near Hawaii, killing 12 pilots and crew members, to an incident, also in ’16, near San Diego in which two F/A-18 fighters colliding in air-to-air training and one pilot parachuted to safety while the other landed, to a 2017 incident off Australia in which three Marines died after an MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor helicopter clipped a Navy ship. (Comparable data from the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force was not available at the time of this report.)
At times, the training accidents have come quickly enough that they’ve been hard to track.
In April, three U.S. military aircraft involved in training exercises crashed over a two-day window.
- On April 3, four Marines were killed when their CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter crashed near El Centro near the Mexican border. The Marines were part of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.
- That same day, a Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier jet crashed in Djibouti in East Africa. The crash occurred during a training exercise and the pilot was able to eject.
- A day later, a pilot with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbird demonstration squadron died when his F-16 crashed at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas, prompting McCain’s Tweet.
The helicopter crash near El Centro was only the second most deadly training incident for the Marines in the previous 12 months. The C-130 crash, which took 16 lives in a Mississippi bean field, was in July, 2017.
Each incident prompts its own response.
The C-130 crash from earlier this month (May 2) in Savannah, Ga., in which nine members of the Puerto Rico Air National Guard died were killed, prompted the U.S. Air Force to ground all air units for safety review. The plane that crashed had undergone routine maintenance, but was heading to “The Boneyard” in Arizona — a spot where planes are stored after being taken out of service — for its retirement. As part of the response, active duty flight units have until May 21 to complete their reviews, and reserve units, including the National Guard, have until June 25.
But as the parade of individual training crashes and mishaps is being noticed by lawmakers, some are considering a national response.
Part of that figures to come in the form of new equipment, though the timing of that is in question.
During a recent visit to Miramar, President Donald Trump told aviators that new weapons, such as the CH-53K King Stallions helicopters, would be coming their way “soon.” But this week, base officials said they expect to transition from older CH-53E Super Stallions to newer CH-53K King Stallion in 2026.
Beyond replacing aging equipment, however, military experts point to accelerated training — and the effects of the so-called budget “sequestration” deal three years ago — as having damaging effects on both training safety and equipment maintenance.
“The number of ready aircraft in Marine Corps Aviation units steadily declined during the past decade as a result of sustained operations and inadequate funding,” said Capt. Sarah Burns, with Headquarters Marine Corps at the Pentagon.
“Sequestration compounded the readiness decline by underfunding readiness sustainment accounts for an aging legacy fleet,” Capt. Burns said. “These effects drove Marine aviation into a position where aircrew could not fly the requisite number of hours to maintain currency, let alone proficiency.”
Gen. John Toolan Jr., who retired in 2016 as the commanding general of the Marine Corps Forces Pacific after an earlier stint as commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton, said current global threats and the need to counterbalance large countries with similar military capabilities are making training more important than ever.
And training only works if it’s difficult.
Toolan said it’s critical for Marines to simulate battlefield conditions. That involves the use of live ammunition even as trainees are mastering new technologies, such as drones, robots and computer simulations.
Other pressures, specifically on the U.S. Central Command and the U.S. Pacific Command, also has increased. As political tension ratchets up in Asia and the Middle East, Toolan and others say the timeline to complete pre-combat training is compressed — meaning there is less time to get more troops ready for action.
“There remain standards that must be attained,” Toolan said. “However, the experienced leadership and intuitive decision makers have less time in key decision-maker assignments.
“There is no substitute for experience,” he added.
The pressure is compounded by simple economics. Key military personnel — such as pilots — are in high demand on the civilian job market, meaning that some of the best-trained specialists are siphoned away to the private sector.
“The airlines are hiring and drawing on our talent pool. Better pay is changing the dynamic,” Toolan said.
“The pressures of the command (also) discourage experienced leaders and they leave early,” he added. “And many don’t accept the responsibilities of command.”
Defense agencies routinely request more money in Washington. But Toolan argued budget deals that forced automatic cuts and troop downsizing have been “very damaging” to readiness training, making it more dangerous. Pilots and crews, he said, are getting less experience as a result of reduced flight time and increased maintenance hours.
Not every training event ends in a deadly mishap.
In December, the 3d Marine Aircraft wing based at Miramar participated in a war game exercise that deployed a battalion-size air, sea and ground assault at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms.
The exercise — meant to prepare Marines for deployment — combined the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing’s “Winter Fury” with the 1st Marine Division’s “Steel Knight” infantry training. It re-created a battalion air assault to establish an air field and refueling center behind enemy lines, involving 1,000 Marines from the 1st Marine Division and 600 pilots and crewmen. The exercise was the first of its kind in more than a decade.
“Whenever we have a large-scale exercise, we have a lot more hours that go into the preparation of the aircraft,” said Col. Michael Borgschulte, assistant Wing Commander for the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, which has units at Camp Pendleton, Miramar and Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona.
“The more flying we do, the more proficient our crews are. Our most valuable asset is the individual Marine,” he added. “Everything we do supports that.”
Col. Borgschulte said he and other commanders put the safety of their Marines at a premium.
Capt. Burns, in the Pentagon, said training hours are going up fast. In March of this fiscal year, Marine Corps. aircrew averaged 19.3 flight hours for the month, up 20 percent from March of 2017 and up nearly 50 percent from two years ago.
Retired Marine Col. Charles Quilter, a Laguna Beach veteran and decorated fighter pilot who flew in Vietnam, Bosnia, Desert Shield, Desert Storm and Operation Enduring Freedom, knows the danger of flying in tactical aviation.
“When you task aviators to hurl themselves at the earth, fight other aircraft, fly at high speeds extremely close to the ground, or land on aircraft carriers — and do it all at night as well — accidents will inevitably happen.
“Yet, realistic training is essential to being able to do the job successfully in the stress of combat,” Quilter said.
“Accidents ruin the future prospects of aviation commanders, and that’s the rub,” he added.
“You’ll never have any accidents if you never fly. But fly you must…. If lack of funding leads to less flying, then pilots will be less skilled and more prone to accidents” when they get into combat or training exercises.
“Conversations with the current generation of aviators reveal to me that they are flying far less than my contemporaries did in the 1960s to 1980s, leading up to Desert Storm.”
John Elliott, father of Capt. Sean Endecott Elliott, co-pilot on the C-130 that crashed in Mississippi in July, still doesn’t know what caused his son’s plane to go down.
What he does know is that plane looked really old.
“I went on Sean’s plane two weeks before it crashed,” said Elliott, of San Juan Capistrano. “It just looked bad, like it should have been in WWII. At that point I knew the maintenance was lacking.”
Elliott said his son and other aircrew worried about maintenance.
“My gut feeling is that he knew a lot more,” Elliott said. “He was much more concerned then he let on. I’d press him, but he would clam up.”
“There are no simple answers,” he added. “I wish they were more careful with the guys.”
©2018 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.