There Is A Crisis In US Military Aviation Whether Mattis And The Pentagon Admit It Or Not

The Secretary of Defense issued a gag order on talking about readiness, ostensibly to maintain operational security, but it only hurts the military.

Chris Kleponis/Sipa USA via AP

A string of U.S. military aircraft accidents have already left nearly 20 service members dead in 2018, but it appears Pentagon- and service-wide policies are preventing officials from openly discussing the possibility of larger, systemic problems. Ostensibly aimed at preventing potential enemies from believing the United States is not ready for a fight, these over-arching guidelines do little for operational security, make it difficult for the public to hold anyone accountable, and directly contradict years of U.S. government officials warning that funding cuts and a lack of a formal budget would likely produce exactly this situation.

According to Task & Purpose, U.S. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, then chief of the Pentagon public affairs office, sent out an Email ordering subordinates to limit how much information they disclosed regarding U.S. military readiness. The underlying assumption seems to be that too much talk about how ready the U.S. military is or isn’t for contingencies and crises can only embolden America’s enemies. There is no indication that this guidance, which came straight from Secretary of Defense James Mattis, has changed since then.

“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, Task & Purpose reported after obtaining a copy of the missive. “Communicating that we are broken or not ready to fight invites miscalculation.”

To be sure potential adversaries regularly comb open sources for any useful information, just as the U.S. military does in return, and operational security exists for a reason. At the same time, the U.S. has used classifications and other appeals to security excessively to keep various types of information concealed for a host of reasons and often applies those labels with an especially broad brush even when it's unnecessary or counterproductive.

USAF

F-16s assigned to the United States Air Force Flight Demonstration Team, also known as the Thunderbirds. On April 4, 2018, one of the organization's jets crashed, killing the pilot. The unit has now canceled two future performances.

But unless the U.S. military intends to stop disclosing aviation accidents entirely, as well as entire units or certain types of aircraft ending up grounded for safety reasons, then opponents already have a wealth of information to work within deducing the readiness and availability rates of certain types for themselves. Class A mishaps, defined as when someone dies or ends up permanently disabled or an accident causes more than $2 million in damages, almost always get reported right when they occur and are difficult to conceal even in the most highly classified situations regardless.

Anyone with an internet connection can go to the websites of the Air Force Safety Center, the Army Combat Readiness Center, and the Naval Safety Center and get various accident statistics and other details at their leisure. It doesn’t take much effort to see possible negative trends.

On April 6, 2018, a U.S. Army AH-64E Apache helicopter gunship belonging to the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade crashed near Fort Campbell, Kentucky, killing both crew members on board. These individuals were the six and seventh to die in U.S. military aviation accidents in a space of approximately 96 hours.

US Army

AH-64D Apaches assigned to the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade during a training exercise in 2014. A similar AH-64E from the brigade crashed on April 6, 2018, killing the pilot and co-pilot.

Members of the press had already begun to question the Pentagon about whether there was some sort systemic issue emerging, as it turned out to be the case with a recent and equally deadly spate of Navy ship accidents. Any potential opponent is almost certainly wondering the same thing, and checking it against other intelligence they might have, but American officials insist on being coy about this possibility.

A day before the Apache went down, U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff within the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered this almost laughably absurd exchange with a reporter during a regular press conference at the Pentagon:

Reporter:  “Can you explain this wave of crashes this very week? Does the U.S. military have a crisis when it comes to U.S. military aviation?”

McKenzie:  “So I would reject ‘wave’ and ‘crisis.’ Those are mishaps that occurred. We're going to look at each one in turn. Each one is tragic. We regret each one. We'll look at them carefully. I'm certainly not prepared to say that it's a wave of mishaps or some form of crisis. No, I'm not prepared to say that.”

Reporter:  “Can you explain it then? If it's not a wave and it's not a crisis, how do you explain it, General?”

McKenzie:  ‘I'd say mishaps happen in military aviation any time you're flying complicated machines in – in situations where you've got less than total visibility and doing things that are difficult to do. Mishaps are inevitably going to occur. We don't want any mishaps to occur.  One mishap is too many. But I'm not prepared to say right now that this is some kind of crisis.”

Of course to err is human and aviation accidents happen, but these are truisms that ignore what otherwise appears to be a decidedly abnormal series of events. The U.S. military aircraft mishaps that have already occurred in 2018 would also seem to continue a worrisome trend from the previous year, in which more than 30 aviators died and more were injured across nearly a dozen separate incidents.

“It's never normal when servicemen and women lose their lives. And I think that's a tremendous tragedy. So, certainly, that's not normal,” Lieutenant General McKenzie finally said near the end of the press briefing in something of a concession. Of course, this also explicitly contradicted his earlier assertion that deadly accidents are entirely normal and it is bizarre to suggest that service members dying on duty for any reason is somehow inherently unusual.

DOD capture

U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, right, and chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana White, give a press briefing on April 5, 2018.

With little actual security benefit, these rhetorical gymnastics mainly serve to make it more difficult for the public, and their elected representatives, to hold anyone accountable and get things fixed. It also further deflects from the need to have serious discussions about whether continuing to conduct a global fight against terrorists and other militants is at all sustainable in its current form.

“Readiness issues such as deferred maintenance, overuse of our troops and equipment, and insufficient investment end up costing us more in the long term,” Ruben Gallego, a Democrat Representative from Arizona and a Marine veteran, told Task & Purpose in an interview. “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.”

All of this might be slightly less galling if the Pentagon itself, and Mattis particularly since taking over as Secretary of Defense, hadn’t spent the better part of the last decade ringing alarm bells at every possible occasion that there was a danger of this occurring as result of the 2011 Budget Control Act. That law imposed automatic spending caps, which in turn prompted cuts, as part of a process commonly known as sequestration.

The continuing inability of Congress to pass a formal annual budget has only made the situation worse, making it difficult for the U.S. military to conduct serious long-term planning and properly arrange its spending priorities. U.S. government officials and lawmakers repeatedly pointed out the devastating impact this would and was having on readiness, including the safety and availability of military aircraft fleets.

USMC

A US Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier. The pilot of one of these survived a crash of one of these in the East African country of Djibouti on April 3, 2018, but that incident, plus another accident involving a CH-53E Super Stallion, forced the cancellation of a major US-led multi-national training exercise. 

To be certain, poor decision making on the part of many of the services further exacerbated these issues. New weapon systems repeatedly took precedence over readiness issues, including routine training, preventive maintenance, and supporting the logistics chain for existing equipment. By 2016, for example, this deliberate neglect prevented the Marines from flying more than 30 percent of their CH-53 heavy lift helicopters – one of which crashed earlier in April 2018, killing four Marines – at any one time.

All of these factors have contributed to produce obviously troubling results. MilitaryTimes recently conducted an in-depth review of thousands of publicly reported U.S. military aviation mishaps, which showed a 40 percent increase in annual accidents across the services between the 2013 fiscal year, when sequestration kicked in, and the 2017 fiscal cycle, which ended on Sept. 30, 2017. We at The War Zone reviewed the outlet’s new database and found that a number of publicly known incidents, including the crash of an Army-owned Beechcraft King Air spy plane in Iraq in 2016 and an EO-5C surveillance aircraft that ran off a taxiway at Biggs Army Airfield in Texas in 2017, are still missing, suggesting that this figure could actually be higher.

We also know from public statements that the overall availability of certain types of aircraft has slipped to atrocious levels. In November 2017, the Marine Corps disclosed to Congress that the availability rate for their CH-53s was still under 40 percent. Earlier in 2017, it became public that more than 60 percent of all Navy and Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets were unusable on any given day. 

Those are just some of the more egregious examples of the often worrisome general state of American military aviation. That doesn't begin to touch on growing reports of hypoxia-like symptoms among fliers of various aircraft types across the services and other apparent freak accidents that can only shake military aviators' confidence in the actual status of officially mission-capable aircraft. 

USMC

A US Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallion. One of these helicopters went down on April 4 and the four Marines on board perished in the accident.

And despite Mattis’ own apparent desire to avoid telegraphing weakness to potential enemies, he has not shied away from making his own foreboding declarations about U.S. military readiness. In fact, America’s top military official has done quite the opposite, continuing to use the language of crisis to push for additional defense spending.

“As hard as the last 16 years have been, no enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of the U.S. military than the combined impact of the Budget Control Act, defense spending cuts and operating in nine of the last 10 years under continuing resolutions,” Mattis said in January 2018 during a talk at The Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced and International Studies. “Today, as our competitive edge over our foes erodes due to budgetary confusion, even with storm clouds gathering, America’s military, as I speak, is operating under yet another continuing resolution.”

The contradictions are readily apparent and difficult to see how the conflicting statements don't potentially embolden hostile actors just as much as admitting there are significant problems in need of fixing. And yet the Pentagon seems to believe that by not acknowledging the reality, they’ll create something of a Schrödinger's readiness level, whereby the U.S. military inside the figurative box is both perfectly able to “fight tonight” and at the same time is always one budget cut away from collapse. The truth is almost certainly somewhere in the middle.

In the meantime, when it comes to military aviation, it’s hard to judge whether the U.S. military as a whole is on a path to solving its issues, let alone the best one. The Air Force has announced a service-wide inquiry into aviation safety, but only into rising Class C mishaps, which result in damages between $50,000 and $499,000, a non-fatal injury that leads to a loss of work time, or both. 

In an interview with USNI News in April 2018, U.S. Marine Corps General Glenn Walters, Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, acknowledged that the situation did strongly seem to point to a loss of readiness after years of near constant operations, but offered few details about what his service planned to do beyond trying to slow the pace of deployments and get new aircraft.

Mattis, who many laud for his no-nonsense attitude, could do well with instituting policies that give the American people, their elected representatives, experts, and the free press, a frank picture of what’s going on and what needs to happen from here on out. At least then it would have a chance of actually getting fixed. 

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com