WASHINGTON — The Marine Corps and Army on Wednesday pointed to tight budgets and a lack of training to explain increases in catastrophic and fatal aircraft incidents during the past few years.
Gen. Robert Neller, the Marine commandant, and Gen. Mark Milley, the Army chief of staff, were questioned during a House budget hearing about the growing number of aviation mishaps, which included the crash of two Marine helicopters in Hawaii in January that killed 12 people. Both explained the upticks by saying funding shortfalls have led to less training than needed, a factor that defense experts have suspected.
“We track this very closely and the simple fact is that we don’t have enough airplanes to meet the training requirements for the entire force,” Neller said.
The generals testified to the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday as the Defense Department is hoping to increase aviation training and maintenance. The House panel is holding hearings and wrestling with politically imposed spending caps as it crafts the department’s annual budget bill.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House panel and an advocate for higher defense spending, said the Marine Corps rate of class A aviation mishaps, which result in the complete loss of an aircraft and the death or permanent maiming of personnel, had hovered at 2.15 per 100,000 flying hours for a decade.
But the rate has shot up from 2.67 in 2014 to 3.96 mishaps so far this year, Thornberry said.
This year’s mishaps include the collision of the two U.S. Marine CH-53 Super Stallions on Jan. 14. In 2015, twelve helicopter crashes killed 30 troops.
“So the point is, over the last three years especially, the number of class A mishaps per 100,000 flying hours has been increasing significantly,” Thornberry said.
Milley said the Army is conducting a “multi-functional, very detailed” study of its aviation mishaps and expects to have findings to share with Congress within about a month.
“Aircraft accidents have increased and we are very concerned about it,” Milley said.
The Army is requesting a budget that will increase helicopter training from 10 to 12 hours per month, he said.
The increase is less than ideal, the general said, but no more money is available.
“Ideally we want them [training hours] to 14-15 hours per month but we can’t get there with the budget,” Milley said.
The Army and other military branches are generally set for a slight increase in funding for the coming year due to a budget deal cut last fall by Democrats and Republicans in Congress. But the deal also sets caps on spending that the services must still work within.
Fiscal hawks in the House are now ready to ditch the spending deal and are pushing for deeper cuts in federal spending against the wishes of defense hawks on the Armed Services panel.