This past August, two Arleigh-Burke class Destroyers, the USS John S McCain and the USS Fitzgerald, were involved in deadly collisions in the Pacific. Both of these accidents together claimed the lives of 17 sailors. At the same time, the Marine Corps has seen a drastic increase in the number of Class A aviation mishaps over the last 5 years, and has had 123 from 2002 to 2016 (Class A mishaps involve fatalities, the loss of an aircraft, or result in more than $2 million in damages). That statistic does not even include the most recent accidents this summer in which a KC-130 aircraft crashed in July killing 16 and an August V-22 Osprey crash in Australia that killed 3 marines.
These accidents have led many to ask questions about readiness and training requirements. On September 19th, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing in order to listen to testimonies regarding the recent Navy collisions. Senator Roger Wicker asked Navy officials if sleep deprivation may have played a factor in the collisions, and Senator John McCain, whose grandfather and father are the namesake of the USS John S McCain, interrogated the Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson if it was true that some sailors were working 100 hours a week onboard some vessels. Others questioned whether streamlined training was to blame, while others contributed it to the lack of funds meant for some naval training and readiness programs due to sequestration.
Marine Corps officials and former pilots have come to the same conclusions. Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, the Marine Corps’ deputy commandant for aviation, testified in July 2016 to the House Armed services committee that new pilots and aircrews are flying half the number of hours he flew when he commissioned. Retired pilot Carl Forsling pointed out that pilots used to fly 30 hours a month, and now it has declined to 20 hours. This problem has also been due to the effects of budget constraints.
The Government Accountability Office also agrees with the conclusion that budget constraints have led to these operational issues. John Pendleton, director of defense capabilities and management at the GAO, testified at the same hearing on September 19, "The Navy is caught between an unrelenting operational demand and a limited supply of ships. At this point, I'm skeptical that the Navy will be able to make significant readiness gains unless the demands on them are decreased." He added that even going forward with increased spending, it would take several years to fix the maintenance and readiness issue due to the severe amount of neglect over the last 4 years. A GAO report from September 7th also found that as of June 2017, 37 percent of the warfare certifications for cruiser and destroyer crews based in Japan, which is where both the Fitzgerald and McCain are stationed, had expired.
This is not the only defense debate occurring in Washington at the moment. For the last 5 years, the Pentagon has been fighting with Congress for another round of Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC. An internal evaluation at the DoD finds that the department has a 20 percent excess in infrastructure. The Pentagon wants to use the money saved to put it towards improving operational warfighting capabilities and invest in future technology. Currently, Senators John McCain and Jack Reed has proposed an amendment that would authorize a new round of BRAC that would begin in 2021 and have a $5 billion cap. The proposed amendment has faced opposition from Senators Susan Collins, Angus King, and House Armed Services Committee Chair Mac Thornberry. The Trump Administration has called for a new round of base closure as well.
If the Pentagon wants to fix both of these issues, they must work hard to partner with the administration, as well as fiscally conservative and hawkish members of Congress to push the new BRAC authorization through. The money freed up by the liquidation of surplus infrastructure would allow the Department to put money back into the Navy and Marine Corps budgets for maintenance and readiness training.