The Top 10 Military Stories of 2016
The following are the Military.com editorial team's picks for the most important military news stories of the year.
1. Trump Surges to Become Next Commander in Chief
Republican Donald Trump in November was elected to become the next commander in chief over his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. Behind in polls going into Election Day, Trump, 70, was declared the winner after seizing a number of key battleground states, from Ohio to Pennsylvania to Florida. Career-oriented troops favored Trump over Clinton by a 3:1 margin, according to an survey conducted by Military.com. Across almost every demographic group, from branch of military service to pay grade to gender, Trump was the clear winner. Most black troops who responded, however, preferred Clinton. Trump has proposed a massive military buildup. He wants to increase the size of the Army to about 540,000 active-duty soldiers, the Marine Corps to 36 battalions, the Navy to 350 surface ships and submarines, and the Air Force to at least 1,200 fighter aircraft. He wants to reform the Veterans Affairs Department in part by giving more vets access to private care. He has turned to retired military generals to fill key positions in his cabinet, including retired Marine Gen. James Mattis for defense secretary.
2. Services Eye New Firearms, Concealed Carry
During the past year, the Army winnowed the number of competitors vying to supply soldiers with a new handgun, the Marine Corps began experimenting with a potential new service rifle, and commanders at bases across the U.S. contemplated how they might use new authority to expand the number of troops who can carry a personal firearm on post. The Army in September dropped Smith & Wesson from its Modular Handgun System competition for reasons that remain unclear. The service is now evaluating striker-fired pistols from four companies: Glock, Sig Sauer, Beretta and FN Herstal. The Marine Corps has been conducting pre-deployment exercises with the M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle to evaluate it as the new service rifle for infantry battalions, the commander of 1st Marine Division, Maj. Gen. Daniel O'Donohue, told Military.com in November. The same month, the Pentagon released guidance allowing U.S. military personnel to carry privately owned, concealed firearms on base, a move that leaders had argued against before Congress. The Pentagon's new policy for carrying firearms on base is intended for uniformed service members and civilians working for the U.S. military -- not for retirees, officials explained. Lawmakers, meanwhile, want to know why the Army and Marine Corps don't use the same rifle ammo.
3. Support Grows for Women to Register for Draft
While lawmakers in Congress dropped a provision requiring women to register for the draft in the latest defense authorization bill, a growing number of political and military officials have voiced support for the idea. The Senate in June voted 85-13 in favor of language that would have required women to register for the draft alongside men for the first time in American history. The reference was largely symbolic -- conscription in the U.S. ended in 1973 during the Vietnam War -- and the wording was later removed from the compromise version of the defense bill. Even so, many military officials, from Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to service chiefs, have supported the proposal, citing the increasing number of women entering combat training. Female soldiers, for example, have now graduated from the Army's Armor Basic Officer Leader's Course, in addition to Ranger School. It's unclear whether the directive will be rolled back under President-elect Trump, who has suggested that gender-integration in the ranks has led to sex assaults: "26,000 unreported sexual assaults in the military-only 238 convictions," he tweeted in 2013. "What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?"
4. LCS Breakdowns Spur Program Overhaul
In a little more than a year, five of the Navy's eight littoral combat ships were sidelined in a series of high-profile breakdowns or accidents that spurred renewed scrutiny and a reorganization of the $36.5 billion acquisition program. The most recent incident involved the USS Montgomery, whose hull was cracked Oct. 29 as the trimaran transited south through the Panama Canal. And in a separate but related embarrassment, the restructuring has left the 70-sailor crew of the USS Coronado and its air wing stuck in Singapore for the holidays. In response to the rash of engineering casualties, Navy officials in September conducted a stand-down and retraining for all littoral combat ship crews and launched a comprehensive review of engineering practices. The results of that review have yet to be made public. Navy officials also announced that the first four LCS would be taken out of the deployment rotation and made test ships to facilitate development of the program. Its rising costs -- the per ship price tag has jumped from $220 million to $470 million -- may make it a target for President-elect Trump, who has already criticized the Air Force One and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programs as too expensive.
5. Deadly Aviation Accidents Prompt Readiness Questions
Recent aviation accidents have prompted questions from lawmakers and defense analysts about the military's state of readiness. In January, two Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters collided off the coast of Hawaii, killing all 12 crew members on board. While a host of factors contributed to the crash -- two Marines even linked the incident to a flight restriction stemming from President Barack Obama's annual holiday vacation -- the service's commandant Gen. Robert Neller said the unit was most affected by readiness shortfalls and maintenance backlogs. The month of June alone saw a fatal Blue Angels accident that occurred just hours after a Thunderbirds jet crashed after flying over the Air Force Academy's graduation ceremony attended by Obama. Harrowing video of the deadly F/A-18 Blue Angels mishap surfaced online. Investigators said the incident was caused by pilot error, specifically an improper transition from a climb maneuver during pre-air show training. Meanwhile, a faulty throttle contributed to the crash of the F-16CM Thunderbirds jet. In July, another Marine pilot was killed when his F/A-18 jet went down during training near Twentynine Palms, California. In September, an Air Force pilot was killed and another was injured after a two-seaterU-2 trainer aircraft crashed in northern California.
6. Military Expands Maternity Leave, Transgender Benefits
The Defense Department this year rolled out a series of personnel changes, including expanded maternity leave for female service members and medical coverage for transgender troops. The Pentagon in January set paid maternity leave for all services at 12 weeks. While the policy change doubled the Army and Air Force's six-week policies, it cut by a third the Navy and Marine Corps' generous 18-week leave policy announced last year by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. The Pentagon requested authority from Congress to increase paid paternity days for new fathers from 10 to 14. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter also ordered the services to establish "mothers' rooms" at facilities with more than 50 female employees to help mothers with breastfeeding after returning to work. He called for increasing hours at child care facilities on base to 14 hours a day, creating a program to allow troops to remain at their duty station in exchange for a longer service obligation and launching a pilot program to let service members freeze their eggs or sperm. Reproductive assistance, such as in vitro fertilization, isn't currently covered by Tricare. Two months after the Pentagon lifted its ban on openly serving transgender troops in June, Tricare began covering transgender military family members and retirees.
7. Navy Commissions Futuristic Destroyer
During a high-profile October ceremony in Baltimore, the Navy commissioned its newest and most advanced destroyer, the USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000), named after the late Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., an iconic figure who oversaw sweeping personnel changes in the fleet. The first of three next-generation destroyers planned as part of a $22 billion acquisition program, the stealthy ship is equipped with an electric propulsion system, wave-piercing hull and advanced weaponry, including an electromagnetic railgun -- features that made it the star of the 2015 science-fiction novel, "Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War." The ship may actually be too stealthy. A Maine lobsterman thought a 40- or 50-foot fishing vessel was approaching based on his radar, but it was actually the hulking 610-foot warship. Crew members plan to sail during peacetime operations with giant reflectors so other ships can see it. The new technology, however, has its kinks. The Zumwalt in November was stuck in Panama for repairs after breaking down while passing through the Panama Canal en route to its San Diego homeport.
8. Shakeup at Parris Island After Muslim Recruit Suicide
The Marine Corps in March sacked a commander at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in South Carolina -- a day before announcing the suicide of a Muslim recruit, 20-year-old Raheel Siddiqui. While officials said the decision to relieve Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon, commander of 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, was tied to specific acts of misconduct and not connected to Siddiqui's death, the timing of the action and unit in question nevertheless raised questions. In all, 20 drill instructors and officers with oversight of the battalion were identified for possible legal and administrative action following a year-long probe revealing a pattern of hazing and abuse that contributed to Siddiqui's death. Three former drill instructors will stand trial on charges of hazing and mistreating recruits and a fourth may also face charges. The review into Siddiqui's suicide led to more investigations, revealing that a drill instructor had hazed another Muslim recruit by repeatedly throwing him into an industrial dryer and turning it on; and that drill instructors had attempted to cover up recruits' hazing-related cases of muscle breakdown, or rhabdomyolysis, forcing them to drop out of training.
9. Mission Creep in Iraq and Syria for ISIS Fight?
The U.S. military this month announced plans to boost the number of special operations forces in Syria by about 200 from roughly 300 to some 500 as part of the fight against militants affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. The additional special operations forces, trainers, advisers and explosive ordnance disposal teams are to assist Syrian Kurds making a drive on the self-proclaimed ISIS capital of Raqqa. But the move comes with risks, as the battlefield in Syria is increasingly complex, with the Syrian Kurds under threat of attack from NATO ally Turkey. Meanwhile, American troops maintained a hands-off role in Aleppo, the rebel stronghold that fell to Syrian government forces amid heavy bombardment from Russian airstrikes. The first U.S. troop to die fighting ISIS in Syria was identified as Senior Chief Petty Officer Scott Cooper Dayton, a decorated and highly experienced Navy explosive ordnance disposal specialist. Meanwhile, the U.S. has also boosted its troop presence in Iraq to more than 5,000 service members to fight ISIS and now plans to keep some 8,400 American troops in Afghanistan next year.
10. US Sees Strained Relationships, Complex Threats Abroad
Beyond the battlefields of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, the U.S. faced geopolitical challenges that have strained relationships with key allies, as well as more aggressive military actions from potential enemies. In July, after a coup attempt in Turkey, government officials closed airspace to military flights, grounding U.S. warplanes at Incirlik Air Base and preventing them from launching strikes against ISIS in neighboring Syria. Suspicious that American officials played a role in the failed coup, Turkish leaders floated the possibility of granting Russians access to the installation. While Turkey has assured U.S. access to the base, it also wants to deepen ties with Russia -- despite the assassination of Russia's ambassador to Turkey and U.S. intelligence that concluded Russia sought to influence the U.S. election through cyber-espionage. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has pushed for closer ties with China. U.S. diplomats are working with Navy admirals in the region to ensure that military relations with the Philippines continue. China continues to enforce territorial claims in the region and heightened tensions with the U.S. in December when it seized and later released a U.S. Navy drone. North Korea in the last year alone claimed it tested a hydrogen bomb, a submarine-launched ballistic missile and was close to developing a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile, leading one former U.S. general to call for a pre-emptive strike against the regime of Kim Jong-Un.
Bonus: For the First Time in 15 Years, Army Beats Navy!
Army football snapped its 14-game losing streak to Navy, winning 21-17 and beating its service academy rival for the first time since 2001. The game took place Dec. 10 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore in front of a sold-out crowd that included President-elect Donald Trump. Army quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw scored the winning touchdown with six minutes left in the fourth quarter on a 9-yard run, to score Army's only points of the second half as part of a 12-play, 80-yard drive. Navy staged a comeback in the second half after Army sprinted out to a 14-0 lead in the first half. Navy quarterback Zach Abey led the Midshipmen to score 17 unanswered points in the second half to take the lead, capping the comeback on a 41-yard run by Abey. But it was Army's year. The Black Knights dedicated their season to cornerback Brandon Jackson, who died in September in a car accident, and wore Nike uniforms designed to honor the World War II-era 82nd Airborne Division.
-- Richard Sisk, Matthew Cox, Hope Hodge Seck, Oriana Pawlyk, Amy Bushatz and Michael Hoffman contributed to this report.