President Trump’s top official in the Navy Department said Wednesday that an increase in non-fatal aviation mishaps is a “leading indicator” of the problems the military should examine, after a year in which dozens of U.S. troops were killed at home and abroad in crashes.
Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer spoke before reporters at the Pentagon alongside the top officers in the Navy and Marine Corps. Navy Adm. John M. Richardson and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller both said most of the incidents were “minor,” but Neller described the Marine Corps’ recent overall track record in stark terms.
“So last year we had a horrible year. We had a horrible year,” Neller said. “And my heart goes out to the families that lost a … Marine, or in one case we had a sailor and 15 Marines on a C-130.”
The comments came hours after a KC-130 plane operated by the Puerto Rico Air National Guard crashed in Savannah, Ga., killing at least five U.S. service members.
They also came after a five-year period in which at least 133 U.S. service members have been killed in crashes. An investigation by the Military Times newspaper chain recently found that the number of incidents involving manned aircraft jumped almost 40 percent between 2013 and the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2017, with a 108 percent increase in accidents involving one kind of fighter jet, the F/A-18 Super Hornet.
The scrutiny comes after nearly 17 years at war in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, with an air campaign against the Islamic State group since 2014 taxing aircraft and maintenance crews.
The military officials noted Wednesday that the overall increase in crashes can be attributed largely to a rise in so-called “Class C mishaps,” which cause between $50,000 and $500,000 in damage to the aircraft but no deaths. More serious Class A mishaps result in fatalities or at least $2 million in damage, while Class B mishaps cause between $500,000 and $2 million in damage or lead to the hospitalization of three people or a debilitating injury for one.
Richardson rejected any notion that the Navy is sending pilots into the air who are not ready to fly or have dangerous aircraft. But he and Neller acknowledged that after years of congressionally mandated budget cuts known as sequestration, pilots have less experience than they once did. A pilot with several years experience in the military 20 years ago would have had probably 1,200 to 1,500 hours in a cockpit, but now gets closer to 800, Neller said.
“We didn’t fund aviation readiness to the amount that we probably should have, because we… were in this kind of financial fiscal reduction, okay? There were decisions that were made,” Neller said. “So, you know, we’ve got a backlog of maintenance. We’ve got airplanes now coming out of depot.”
President Trump signed in March a $1.3 trillion budget deal, saying he had set aside veto threats because he thought it was important to get the military $700 billion in funding, $60 billion more than it saw in 2017.
Spencer said that there is not enough data to directly connect the past funding cuts to the recent accidents, but that “additive” training hours will help.
“That’s kind of a brilliant flash of the obvious comment,” Spencer said. “I don’t have data to give you a direct correlation.”