Oct 16, 2017
Defense Drumbeat

Orange County Register - By: Erika I. Ritchie - October 14, 2017

...Tagen Schmidt was among 14 Marines and a sailor burned – with several incurring critical injuries – when their amphibious assault vehicle burst into flames last month following an explosion during a pre-deployment training exercise in hilly terrain and dry brush between two gun ranges.

...The accident is the most recent in a rash of non-combat training exercises that have severely injured or killed Marines. 

The rate of Marine on-duty training related mishaps causing injury and death has moved up and down over the years. But the number of ground and aviation mishaps per 100,000 Marines this year is 10.49, up about 60 percent from 2014, according to data from the Naval Safety Center.

...The recent injuries in non-combat accidents follow several years where both non-deployed and deployed troops have seen a rise in accidents and crashes that have prompted operational pauses in the Marine Corps, the Air Force and the Navy.

Now, concerned Pentagon officials are looking to possible causes, including a speed up in training schedules to meet deployment demands around the globe, what top defense leaders say has been reduced funding for training, equipment maintenance and base infrastructure, as well as a drain to the private sector  of experienced, highly skilled armed services personnel.

In all branches of the armed forces, at least 56 service members have been killed or injured in non-combat incidents since the beginning of June, according to an analysis by the Military Times.

...Gen. John Toolan Jr., who retired last year as the commanding general of the Marine Corps Forces Pacific and before that led the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton, said current global threats and the need to counterbalance large countries with similar military capabilities are making training more important than ever.

Toolan said it’s critical for Marines to simulate battlefield conditions. That involves not just live weapons fire, but mastering new technology including drones, robots and computer simulations.

The pressure, specifically on the U.S. Central Command and the U.S. Pacific Command, has increased with heightened tensions in Asia and the Middle East. And training timelines have been compressed to meet deployment timelines, Toolan said.

“There remain standards that must be attained, however the experienced leadership and intuitive decision makers have less time in key decision-maker assignments,” Toolan said. “There is no substitute for experience.”

Compounding the pressures, some key military personnel – such as pilots – are now in high demand in the job market, which is siphoning off some of the most highly trained specialists, he said. “The airlines are hiring and drawing on our talent pool, ” he said. “Better pay is changing the dynamic. The pressures of the command discourage experienced leaders and they leave early."

“And many don’t accept the responsibilities of command.”

Defense agencies routinely request more money in Washington. But Toolan argued budget deals that forced automatic cuts and troop downsizing have been “very damaging” to readiness training. Pilots and crews are getting less experience as a result of reduced flight time and increased maintenance hours, he said.

Vietnam–era assault amphibious vehicles, like the one Schmidt was in, require 12-15 hours of service for every hour of use, according to Marine Corps officials.

115th Congress