Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Sequestration taking toll on Marine aviators' safety


The collision of two Marine jets off the coast of Southern California in November gave San Diego a front-row seat to the life-or-death consequences of delaying maintenance and denying training hours to Marine Corps aviators. The lack of funding for these core elements of the USMC mission — due mostly to Congress’ self-inflicted wound of sequestration — constitutes a breach of faith with the men and women who risk their lives serving our nation.

Sequestration’s toll on the core “man, train, and equip” missions now has a body count, and United States Marine Corps aviation is the canary in the coal mine. 

The recent removal of USMC Fighter Attack Squadron 232’s commander is the fourth involuntary change in aviation leadership in 2016, a phenomenon underscoring a much broader deterioration in the quality of USMC aviation. Facing untenable budgetary instability and frequent deployments, readiness has plummeted and crashes have increased precipitously. Department of Defense accountability may come via an inspector general report in 2017, but that is too little, too late.

Pilots are not being given enough flight time to safely perform their duties, creating unnecessary and deadly risk for pilots and their crews. After a Sept. 2, 2015 CH-53E Super Stallion crash, USMC aviation deaths were already at a five-year high. Less than five months later, two more Super Stallions collided off the coast of Hawaii, with 12 more Marines lost in the crash. The investigation cited pilot error, based on “low aircraft readiness that led to inadequate pilot proficiency.” Following these devastating losses, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller testified to Congress, “our aviation units are currently unable to meet our training and mission requirements,” also noting, “when you don’t have enough airplanes to fly, then your flying hours go down and it becomes difficult to maintain your currency.”

In the wake of these accidents, the Marine Corps Times highlighted the endemic problems facing USMC aviation; the mandatory sequester — followed by budget caps — has limited flight training hours, the maintenance and upgrading of platforms, and the purchase of new systems, plaguing readiness and corresponding with a marked increase in aviation accidents. In the wake of these accidents, USMC spokeswoman Capt. Sarah Burns confirmed there are 85 F/A-18s available for training, less than half the 171 required.

The aviation community is hamstrung and struggling to prepare to fight future conflicts, all while facing increasingly dangerous training conditions at home. With a high operational tempo, aging equipment, and a shortage of funding, it is nearly impossible to rectify the deadly cocktail of slashed training hours, equipment that hasn’t received on-time maintenance and prioritization of deploying squadrons. Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, deputy commandant for USMC aviation, has acknowledged that not only is the situation dire, but “we’re in a deep hole and have a ways to go to climb out.” 

After Gen. Neller’s March testimony, the USMC began investigating whether there was a “linear correlation” between the lack of training hours and increase in aviation accidents. As part of debate over the National Defense Authorization Act in April, Lt. Gen. Davis testified to issues arising with the F/A-18 Hornet, noting the operational tempo and overutilization had led to a “low flight time and short training progression” for pilots. Since the beginning of the summer of 2016, there have been seven “legacy hornet” crashes or incidents involving U.S. forces, three of which have killed their pilots. On Oct. 26, an F/A-18 crashed on a training flight, and two weeks later two F/A-18s collided midair, while in June a Blue Angels pilot was killed in a crash, and on Dec. 17, Naval aviation grounded all F/A-18s in response to yet another problem.

Without change, armed forces aviation will be defined by maintenance failure and deadly training accidents. The USMC stand-down on all nondeployed aviation over the summer played well with critics, and is a first step in re-evaluating the safety with which aviation can function at these low levels of funding, but does not go far enough. The problem is so dire that a single safety review is a drop in the bucket of deferred costs. 

Aviation has always been a high-risk endeavor and even in the best of operating environments, accidents do happen. However, the inexcusable degradation of readiness at the hands of an irresponsible Congress is simply unacceptable. This should be a bipartisan issue. Those suffering at the hands of sequestration are our men and women in uniform. It is imperative that Congress remove the danger inherent in allowing aviation to degrade by providing robust funding increases and further safety measures. “It’s a dangerous business” is no longer a sufficient explanation.

Schafer is a research assistant for the Military, Veterans & Society program at the Center for a New American Security.


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