U.S. Marines and Risk
On Monday 15 Marines and one Navy sailor died when a Marine KC-130 crashed, with debris covering a field in Mississippi. It’s too early to draw conclusions about what caused the transport plane to suffer a catastrophic failure on its flight from North Carolina to California, reportedly at cruising altitude. But such tragedies are becoming more routine and deserve some attention.
It is unknown what led to the crash, and it could be anything from equipment malfunction to human error. The plane appears to have been loaded with munitions that might have caused or contributed to the crash. The names of the service members on board still weren’t public by our deadline.
One reality is that Marine aviation has recently experienced a rise in “Class A Mishaps,” which are incidents that carry a body count or result in more than $2 million in aircraft damage. House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry pointed out at a hearing last year that the rate for the Marine aviation community has “been increasing significantly.”
Over the past decade the rate has hovered around 2.15 events for every 100,000 hours flown, Mr. Thornberry noted. But in 2015 the figure increased to 3.29 and 3.39 in 2016; that year 12 Marines died when two helicopters crashed into each other off the coast of Hawaii. The rate so far for 2017 is 4.47, including Monday’s crash.
One hypothesis that deserves to be examined is a combination of old equipment and the fact that pilot hours have been reduced in recent years because of funding cuts. Planes like the F/A-18 are stretching past their lifetimes. Earlier this year Navy officials testified to Congress about a number of pilot “physiological episodes”—e.g. oxygen deprivation—that compound the risk of human error.
None of this will come as news to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who has made addressing readiness problems a central part of his agenda. But Marines and other service members sign up for duty knowing the risks of combat, and they shouldn’t have to endure an increasing threat to their safety from routine training or transport.