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With hurricane relief and the debt ceiling grabbing the headlines, it will be easy to overlook today’s Congressional hearing on recent ship collisions in the Pacific Ocean. But policymakers should not.

Troops are now more likely to die in “peacetime” incidents than active hostilities or combat.

We should all be worried about that trend. Recent U.S. Navy ship collisions in the Pacific and several aircraft crashes have highlighted the tangible and tragic consequences of how “degraded military readiness” manifests. The loss of life stemming from the accidents involving the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain has led to an operational pause in the United States Navy—and for good reason. Something is wrong, and if recent history is any indication, it is likely not just one single issue that can quickly be isolated and fixed.

While Afghanistan is now the longest continuous conflict in American military history, it actually ceased to be the deadliest threat that the military faces several years ago. That dubious honor has belonged to the specter of on-duty accidents, which have been the biggest killer of American servicemembers since 2014.

That year, a combined total of 39 American service members lost their lives due to hostile action in Afghanistan. Contemporaneously, 57 servicemembers were killed on duty in incidents including aircraft crashes, live-fire training mishaps, and operational mistakes akin to those which took the lives of sailors aboard the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain this year. Only 16 of those 57 casualties were in Afghanistan. As combat deaths have continued to decline, accidents have accounted for more war losses in Afghanistan in each and every subsequent year.

Yet within this data lies an even more disturbing trend: the Navy and Marine Corps have suffered enough accidental fatalities since 2015 to eclipse the total number of all uniformed American personnel killed in Afghanistan through both hostile and non-hostile action over the last three years. Total casualties in Afghanistan for 2015, 2016, and 2017 were 22, 14, and 11, respectively. In those same years, the Department of the Navy lost 28, 21, and a stomach-churning 43 souls to accidents—and a quarter of 2017 still remains.

There exists a very real possibility that this year, four times as many sailors and Marines will die in accidents compared to all American troops killed on the Afghan frontlines.

How can this be? There are surely many reasons. Navy and Marine leaders have identified one of them as a consequential disconnect between the expanding global missions they are asked to undertake and the shrunken forces they can muster to meet them.

For the Marines, a rapidly deteriorating aviation component is the major impediment to readiness. In a March 2016 House Armed Services Committee hearing, Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) noted that while the 10 year average of accidents per 100,000 flying hours in the Marine Corps was 2.15, the annual average has been steadily climbing. It reached 3.96 by 2016, and already stands at 4.3 this year. In comparison, the Army’s comparable figure was 1.99 in 2016.

Commandant of the Marine Corps General Robert Neller attributed this higher accident rate to a lack of training caused by shortfalls in aircraft inventories, and the need to deploy so many of the remaining airframes forward on operations.

As the two recent destroyer collisions indicate, one of the Navy’s particular stressors lies in its overstretched surface force. Leaders and lawmakers have stated the fleet needs 355 ships to meet the requirements placed upon it; this would be a 28% expansion from the current battle force inventory of 277 ships.

Destroyers like USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain are particularly hard pressed. These vessels are called on to perform a wide array of missions in times of war, peace, and everything in between. Their broad set of responsibilities ranges from anti-submarine, anti-air, and surface warfare duties, to humanitarian and disaster relief missions, as well as ballistic missile defense and freedom of navigation operations.

While demand for destroyers has steadily increased, crews have shrunk by an average of 12 sailors since the turn of the millennium. The result has been a lengthening of the naval work week—officially capped at 81 hours—to an unsustainable 108 hours on certain vessels. Given these conditions—smaller, overtaxed crews on ships increasingly in high demand—it is not hard to fathom how fatal accidents can occur.

Unlike the Taliban in Afghanistan, the enemy responsible for these deaths is easy to identify and, fortunately, to defeat. Much of the blame for these tragedies can be pointed at sequestration and the Budget Control Act. As I have noted elsewhere, the Navy alone estimates that it has lost $14 billion in funding for training and maintenance over the last five years. The appalling casualties in the maritime services due to preventable causes over that time period is testament to the dangers of not matching budgetary means to the strategic ends that American military forces are called upon to achieve.

Each individual death in the services, accidental or otherwise, is a tragedy. Yet in the case of the Navy and the Marine Corps, the misery is greater than the sum of its parts. Not only do these tragic and preventable losses sap the strength of the services, they gnaw at the confidence, morale and operational capabilities of the force.

Throughout the fall, Congress will enter negotiations for the government’s budget for next year. Capitol Hill has yet to craft a bill, much less float an idea, to avoid the Budget Control Act’s strict spending caps and the potential return of sequestration yet again. Worse, the White House’s budget essentially proposes to keep the BCA-by-another-name. 

The damage done in the wake of the Budget Control Act has caused catastrophic harm for those in uniform. Legislators should approach the need for a total federal budget deal that increases both defense and nondefense spending together with as much urgency as they will hurricane relief to the citizens of Texas and elsewhere—and with the same reverence for the slain.


Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where she works on defense strategy, defense budgets, and military readiness.

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