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Analysis

Military Aviation Is in a Tailspin

Reforms Would Save Lives and Billions of Dollars
(Illustration: Renzo Velez / POGO; Photos: Upyernoz / CC BY 2.0; Christopher Paquette / CC BY 2.0)

Business as usual at the Pentagon is causing avoidable aircraft crashes that have killed hundreds and cost billions, according to a new report.

The report comes from the National Commission on Military Aviation Safety, a group created by Congress in 2018 to study safety issues facing the aging fleet. After a series of high-profile military aviation disasters and increased scrutiny on spiking accident rates—including a three-week period that saw six separate aircraft crashes that killed 16 pilots and aircrew—the commission was tasked with determining whether military aviation was indeed getting more dangerous, and if so, what could be done to reverse the trend.

The commission’s findings are tragic. From 2013 to 2018, over 6,000 accidents killed 198 servicemembers, destroyed 157 aircraft, and cost $9.4 billion. While the study was in progress, from 2019 until publication in December 2020, another 26 lives, 29 aircraft, and $2.3 billion were lost to non-combat accidents, which the commissioners point out to stress the urgency of the problem.

From 2013 to 2018, over 6,000 accidents killed 198 servicemembers, destroyed 157 aircraft, and cost $9.4 billion.

The commissioners, a group of former pilots, aviation maintenance professionals, accident investigators, and aerospace executives, visited more than 200 sites and held roundtables with maintainers, pilots, and squadron leadership. The commissioners came away “deeply troubled by the chronic fatigue” they witnessed during these visits, and warned that “current operations tempo (OPTEMPO) is leading to unsafe practices and driving experienced aviators and maintainers out of the force.”

Military aviation comes with inherent risks, as design tradeoffs are made between lethality and safety, and missions tend to be more dangerous than hauling passengers from airport to airport. However, the report found that despite the higher risks involved with military aviation, the recent spikes in accidents could not be attributed to that inherent risk.

Most worrying to the commissioners was a steady increase in “Class C” mishaps, defined as “at least $50,000 but less than $500,000, and/or nonfatal injuries that require time off from work.” While these are less serious than Class A mishaps, which are the most serious and sometimes result in fatalities, “It is a matter of inches or seconds that make the difference between a Class C or a Class A,” the commanding general of the Army Combat Readiness Center told a House subcommittee in 2018.

Across the board, mishaps are moderately increasing, with the Navy and Marine Corps numbers especially concerning to the commission. Just last year, the Navy had its highest Class A mishap rate of the seven years the commission examined.

The findings are consistent with years of investigation into the state of the CH-53E and MH-53E helicopters that ultimately resulted in a documentary film, Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn? My then-colleagues from the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley and I visited several 53E squadrons and heard horror story after horror story of pilots extremely short on flight time and maintainers under immense pressure to get aircraft up, worried their eventual corner-cutting would lead to another deadly crash.

More Money, More Problems

The report makes clear that the sufficiency of the funding is not the problem. 

“The Commission’s primary fiscal concern is not the amount of money currently allocated to military aviation, but rather the lack of predictability and reliability of the funds,” Richard Healing, vice chairman of the commission, told Congress in a closed briefing

A combination of poor management, an unrealistic and overly broad mission, and delays in expensive, problem-riddled new aircraft has left military aviation in shambles.

This discrepancy may seem trivial, but it has big implications. As the report points out, a combination of poor management, an unrealistic and overly broad mission, and delays in expensive, problem-riddled new aircraft has left military aviation in shambles. Simply throwing more money at the defense budget often exacerbates systemic problems, as former Pentagon analyst Franklin “Chuck” Spinney told me in our documentary, Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn? “It’s almost guaranteed to get worse, because you’re rewarding all the bad behavior that got you there in the first place.”

While the report stops short of recommending fundamental, revolutionary change within the Pentagon, it does offer some commonsense reforms, like ensuring that overworked aircraft maintainers aren’t spending time on duties unrelated to the task at hand, and ensuring the services are properly tracking the causes of accidents.

A Safety Czar at the Pentagon

The commission recommends the creation of a joint safety council that reports to the deputy secretary of defense, which would serve as a central clearinghouse for aviation safety data. The commission found that because the Navy, Air Force, and Army collected data in slightly different ways, defense-wide analysis was hindered and finding trends was unnecessarily labor-intensive. The new council would not only collect and standardize numbers of accidents, but would also conduct a systematic accounting of the results of mishap investigations and the human and material factors that cause accidents, something widely practiced in commercial aviation.

The head of that office would be the director of aviation safety. The report noted that the Pentagon lacks a single authority focused on safety. A similar effort was made in 2003 with the creation of the Defense Safety Oversight Council, but it lost “top-level” support and fizzled out, according to the report. To ensure history doesn’t repeat itself, the commission recommends the joint safety council be “fully funded, staffed, and charged with developing and overseeing Defense-wide safety policies for the Secretary of Defense.”

New Aircraft Delayed, Compromises Made

The report also looked at the real operational costs of new, expensive aircraft often being delayed, sometimes by decades. The commission noted that the overly optimistic timelines set for new aircraft means older equipment is forced to keep flying, even when maintenance funding has been pulled.

“As the transition begins, personnel are reassigned to the new platform, legacy facilities are neglected, and parts availability dwindles,” the report reads. “Then, delays in acquiring the new platform extend the life of the old platform for years.”

Look no further than the troubled CH-53E helicopter. A workhorse helicopter meant for heavy lifting and troop transport, the Super Stallion entered service in 1981. Even after a service life extension kept the huge helicopters flying, maintaining them is a constant struggle. Part availability poses a significant challenge. Squadrons are known to “cannibalize” aircraft, stripping one aircraft of parts in order to fix another. The report notes that this practice was common across military aviation, a sign of dangerous problems in the supply chain. The commission even notes that members “saw a sign prominently displayed in one unit that said, ‘Supply can’t…so we CAN [cannibalize].’”

The CH-53E, originally designed to be phased out in the mid-2000s, will now most likely fly until 2030 or even later, in part due to delays in the helicopter that was supposed to replace it, the CH-53K. As my colleague Mark Thompson pointed out, the 53K was originally slated for service in 2015, but it’s now looking like it won’t fully enter service until 2023 or 2024 due to a laundry list of problems. The 53K is also astronomically expensive. At $138 million per aircraft, it even beats the F-35.

What is left out of the usual conversation, and what the report will hopefully bring more attention to, is that delays and cost increases can have tragic human consequences.

It’s not only the legacy aircraft that suffer under this arrangement. New aircraft, billed as easier to take care of, often end up costing more money and hours to keep flying. The prevalence of concurrency, as the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has written about previously, means that large numbers of aircraft aren’t even out of the design stage when they arrive in squadrons’ hangars.

And those new aircraft may only be exacerbating the problems the fleet confronts. “The bean counters got it wrong. They said the F-35 is going to be easier to maintain, they will need less maintenance. These aircraft take a lot more man hours than previously thought, but they’ve already appropriated smaller staffing” an unnamed F-35 squadron commander told the commission. This conclusion aligns with POGO’s extensive reporting on the topic by Dan Grazier, who revealed a slew of issues relating to F-35 maintenance earlier this year.

Cumulatively, the commission observed that this leads to less aircraft availability, which leads to less flight time, which leads to pilots who aren’t confident, which can lead to deadly accidents that are chalked up to “pilot error.” The commission reported that 43% of the accidents it reviewed fell under this category. Accidents in the 53E platform alone have taken the lives of 136 servicemembers, not one the result of enemy fire.

Operational Tempo: “My kids don’t know who I am”

The commission found that due to the vast disparity between dwindling numbers in the military workforce and more active operations around the world, aircrews are burning out and leaving the profession in search of a better work-life balance. Exhausted personnel create an environment where avoidable mishaps are more likely, the report concludes.

The commission recommends ensuring that funding and levels of administrative staff reflect primary needs of the pilots and aircrew, so that those in an aviation-related role aren’t doing other tasks.

What seems to be missing from the report is an acknowledgment of the military’s vast commitments around the world, and the foreign policy decisions that exacerbate an already thin and burnt out workforce. It should be noted that were the U.S. not participating in a global war in dozens of countries, the strain on aircraft and personnel could be relieved.

The commission ultimately gave 24 recommendations to improve aviation safety. While some are immediately possible, like upping pilot retention bonuses to $100,000 a year, others, like “stop using continuing resolutions to fund national security, military readiness, and aviation safety,” are not.

The secretary of defense and the heads of each military department are required to respond to the report’s findings and recommendations and provide an action plan within 120 days of the report’s publication.

A December 3 scheduled public hearing on the report’s findings before the Readiness Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee was changed at the last minute to a “closed briefing.” According to Representative John Garamendi’s (D-CA) office, the change was made out of COVID-19 concerns, and House rules prevented the subcommittee from broadcasting the event virtually without proper notice.

Family members of those killed in aviation accidents had long been anticipating the report and the hearing, and several contacted Garamendi to express their desire for a full and open hearing. In one of these communications shared with POGO, the lawmaker’s office wrote that “this will not be the last committee event on the topic of military mishaps.”

Nicole Van Dorn, whose husband Wes was killed along with two other Naval aviators when their MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter crashed in 2014, wrote to Garamendi to express her “extreme disappointment” in the decision to cancel the hearing, according to correspondence shared with POGO. “I understand that the pandemic poses many great challenges for governing. That being said, I still hold that the potential for positive impact on the future of the aviation community far outweighs the risk.”

It remains to be seen what reforms the Pentagon and Congress will implement, but what is clear is that at the current rate, if nothing changes, we should expect more people to lose their lives in what may be avoidable accidents.