WASHINGTON -- A threefold increase in helicopter crash deaths last year is raising questions about whether budget cuts are endangering troops by forcing deep cuts in maintenance and training.
Twelve helicopter crashes in 2015 killed 30 service members -- three times as many deaths as in 2014. Twelve more died Jan. 14 when two U.S. Marine CH-53 Super Stallions collided off the coast of Oahu in Hawaii during a night training flight.
Marine commanders including Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, deputy Marine commandant for aviation, and Gen. Robert Neller, commandant of the Marine Corps, are looking at why so many helicopters are crashing, according to a senior defense official familiar with the discussions.
Almost all the deaths, including those on Jan. 14, occurred during home-station training missions.
Nondeployed units at their home stations have dealt with reduced flight training opportunities for years. The continued high pace of wartime operations meant units deploying to conflict areas got priority for training.
Cuts by Congress and the White House to funds used by the Marines and other services to pay for flight time and helicopter repairs means that there may not be enough air-worthy aircraft available for nondeployed units to train safely.
For the Marines, for example, almost one-fifth of their helicopters aren't available due to maintenance requirements.
During testimony at the Senate Armed Services Committee in March, Davis said the Marine Corps is "having a difficult time, you know, getting our ready bench, which [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine] General [Joseph] Dunford calls a 'ready bench,' ready to deploy," he said. "We do a great job getting the guys out the door ... with assets and training, but it's training that next group that's ready to go" that is more difficult, he said.
In addition, because nondeploying units spend less time in the air, their training opportunities become even more dangerous, former Marine Corps and Navy pilots say.
"It's not a direct one-for-one correlation, but once you go below 15 hours (a month) per pilot, that's when you see real degradation in performance," said retired Maj. Carl Forsling, who has piloted CH-46 Sea Knights and MV-22B Ospreys for the Marines.
In the Marines' 2015 aviation plan, the service noted "we need to increase the amount of time our aviators spend in the air," and set new training hour requirements based on each type of aircraft. Two of its most heavily used aircraft -- the Super Stallion and the Osprey -- were assigned 16.5 flight hours a month and 16.8 flight hours a month per pilot, respectively.
Requirements are "just above the bare minimums for safety ... there's not a lot of wiggle room," Forsling said.
Retired Cmdr. Chris Harmer, who flew SH-60F Sea Hawk helicopters for the Navy, and who now is a defense analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said there is a direct tie.
"There is no doubt whatsoever that reduced flying hours equal increased [accidents] and fatalities," he said.
"The reality is flying is a perishable skill," he said. The type of flying that the helicopter units train for, such as close formation flying during nighttime operations, "is highly calibrated and coordinated. If you lose currency, it is extremely difficult and dangerous to regain it."
In late 2015, a string of Army helicopter crashes led the Army to order all helicopter units to stand down for several days in December. About 1,000 Army helicopters not deployed or assigned to critical needs were grounded to force their squadrons to look closely at whether there were problems in maintenance, flight training, crew coordination and operations procedures.
What the Army found was that while the cluster of crashes was concerning, the number of incidents was still consistent with past years, and the primary cause was pilot error.
Harmer acknowledged the role of pilot error "but a lack of flying causes pilot error," he said. Fewer hours in the air makes the pilot less able to safely respond to unforeseen weather or contingencies, he said.
In May 2014, the Navy took a similar type of stand down. After a month where the service saw three crashes, Vice Adm. David Buss, then commander of Naval Air Forces, ordered a "tactical pause for safety," said Navy spokeswoman Cmdr. Jeannie Groeneveld.
In that review, Buss directed each commanding officer to look at the accidents that had happened that year "and find factors relative to their squadrons," Groeneveld said.
One of the Navy's helicopter wings modified its training as a result, Groeneveld said.
Capt. Sarah Burns, a Marine Corps spokeswoman, said the service hasn't decided whether to take a similar action.
"The decision to hold aviation safety stand downs are enacted at the discretion of the commanding officer," Burns said.
Reductions to training and maintenance budgets are a result of several years of cuts in Congress, said Mackenzie Eaglen, a senior defense fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, a nonpartisan policy group in Washington.
"The U.S. military has suffered a roughly 30 percent decrease in operations and maintenance funding from fiscal year 2012 through fiscal year 2016," Eaglen said. "The Army has taken a hard hit with a nearly 40 percent decrease" to those same training and maintenance funds, she said.
The cuts have meant "reduced funding and training, along with deferred maintenance, for years now across military aviation platforms," said Eaglen, who has analyzed the impact that 15 years of nonstop wartime operations has had on the services.
Larry Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense for President Ronald Reagan and now a senior defense fellow at the Center for American Progress, said it was tempting to go after operations and maintenance accounts as budget cuts were needed due to sequestration.
Unlike cutting a weapon system, readiness doesn't have specific members of Congress or lobbyists protecting it, he said.
"It's always easy to cut readiness because then I don't have to worry about a contract or something I have to carry out," Korb said.
Army Maj. Gen. Michael D. Lundy, commanding general of Fort Rucker, Alabama, which conducts the Army's aviation accident investigations, told an audience recently that the Army is trying to find ways to increase home-station training within budget constraints.
"We need to be training at a much higher level," he said, according to a news release from the Association of the United States Army.
Now the Marines are looking inward, though it's not clear whether the discussions will lead to a similar type of stand-down like the Army had last fall.
"These conversations are not just specific" to the most recent Oahu crashes, but look at readiness overall, Burns said.
"The Marine Corps is committed to ensuring our aircraft are safe, and that the pilots and aircrew who fly them are thoroughly trained," she said.