Yet another deadly crash on Friday evening brought the total number of American service members to die during routine aircraft operations last week to seven, as a rash of recent incidents have reignited concerns about the dismal state of readiness the U.S. military has found itself in.
An AH-64E Apache crashed at approximately 9:50 p.m. on Friday night during a training operation at Fort Campbell in Tennessee. Both pilots died in the incident. The Apache and crew belonged to the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, though their identities have not yet been revealed to the public. The cause of the crash has also not been revealed, but defense officials claim an investigation is underway.
“This is a day of sadness for Fort Campbell and the 101st Airborne, “ said Brigadier Gen. Todd Royar, acting senior commander of the 101st Airborne Division and Fort Campbell. “Our thoughts and prayer are with the families during this difficult time.”
This crash brought a particularly tragic and deadly week of American military aviation to a close, as seven service members in total lost their lives during non-combat operations. Two Marine Corps CH-53 Super Stallions went down last week, including one incident in Southern California that claimed the lives of four Marines on board. The following day, an Air Force Thunderbird pilot was killed when his F-16 crashed at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Another incident in Djibouti on Tuesday saw a Marine Corps Harrier crash during takeoff, though the pilot was able to safely eject.
“What has been evident to me for some time is now becoming clear to the American people. The readiness of our military is at a crisis point,” Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas told lawmakers on Saturday.
Tragic as the past week has been, it has truly only been a continuation of a service wide trend. A lack of maintenance and training across the board has resulted in numerous incidents that have cost American lives, including two collisions between U.S. Navy warships and commercial vessels that claimed the lives of 17 sailors and a slew of other aircraft incidents like a C-130 crash last July that ended the lives of 16 Marines. None of these instances involved enemy contact – and many of these service members died as a result of seemingly avoidable accidents.
As these new incidents hit the headlines, many are prompted to ask questions about why these tragedies keep occurring, and further, why no one seems to have seen them coming.
The thing is, lots of people did.
We need bipartisan support for this budget request,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis told lawmakers last summer. “In the past, by failing to pass a budget on time or eliminate the threat of sequestration, Congress sidelined itself from its active constitutional oversight role. Continuing resolutions coupled with sequestration blocked new programs, prevented service growth, stalled industry initiative and placed troops at greater risk.”
“For all the heartache caused by the loss of our troops during these wars, no enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of our military than sequestration,” he added.
Following multiple embarrassing incidents in the Pacific, including the aforementioned collisions between Navy vessels and merchant ships, the Navy’s investigation revealed a troubling lack of training for the crews aboard both the USS Fitzgerald and the USS. John S. McCain. Both crews lacked the training they needed to conduct routine operations, and in both incidents, the vessel’s leadership was relieved and charged for their hands in the avoidable tragedies. However, many have pointed to the grueling operational tempo and lack of time or funding allocated to training for the crashes.
“Both of these accidents were preventable and the respective investigations found multiple failures by watch standers that contributed to the incidents,” said Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. John Richardson. “We must do better.”
The Marine Corps, perhaps more than any other branch, has seen a rash of incidents and crashes of their aircraft, particularly in Japan where local governments have begun requesting new rules be put into place regarding where American aircraft are allowed to fly over. A number of emergency landings on private property, and one incident that saw a window fall out of a Marine Corps CH-53 and land in a school’s playground, injuring one child, has led to an increased anti-American sentiment among the Japanese populous surrounding American installations within their borders.
While some politicians were eager to pat themselves on the back for managing to pass an increase in defense spending this year, the fact that it came nearly three months after the fiscal year actually started meant that, once again, the entirety of the U.S. military found itself in a financial holding pattern, unable to initiate new training endeavors, unable to order the required materials to conduct necessary maintenance – all the while, having to continue to fight in ongoing combat operations despite uncertainty regarding when money might finally start flowing again.
As James Mattis pointed out to Congress in a letter he wrote pleading for consistent funding of America’s defense apparatus, 90 days after continual resolution spending begins, the lost training becomes “unrecoverable” due to operational requirements. In other words, each year continuing resolution spending extends for three months, a full one fourth of the military training that should have taken place that year has simply been lost.
This has become so commonplace, some defense officials have taken to reminding lawmakers that doing this to the men and women in uniform should not be considered normal – though throughout the better part of the last decade, it certainly has been. In fact, it has been the case for the past nine consecutive years.
Some, if not all, of last week’s tragedies could likely have been avoided had air crews, pilots, and aircraft all received the maintenance, care, and training they required to fly these missions safely. Instead, the United States is now being faced with the very real repercussions of its governmental squabbling: as lawmakers treat important issues like the defense budget as bargaining chips in a squabble between warring parties – keeping the nation in multiple wars, while smothering it’s ability to fight them under the weight of political grandstanding.
While our politicians posture for reelection, seven more service members won’t be coming home to their families – and as tragic as their loss is, the real tragedy is that each of them died for their country, all while the men and women responsible for leading the nation continue to fight for themselves and their political parties, rather than the nation as a whole.
Feature image courtesy of the U.S. Army