WASHINGTON — Senior military leaders are examining whether strict budget constraints have contributed to a recent rash of deadly training accidents and crashes across the armed forces, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Monday.
In comments to Pentagon reporters, Mattis said the military services are looking at all the circumstances surrounding the accidents to see if there are any broader cultural, training or other problems common to the mishaps. "I am not willing to say right now that there's a direct line between sequestration and what has happened," he said, referring to congressional budget constraints. But "we're going to take a very close look at that."
Mattis dismissed the notion that military commanders might be afraid to say no to duties their troops might not be ready for or to suggest their personnel might need more training.
Since mid-July, nearly 100 U.S. service members have been killed or injured in close to a dozen mishaps, among them ship collisions, military aircraft crashes and a Marine amphibious vehicle that ran over and ruptured a gas line.
Seventeen sailors were killed and five injured in two separate Navy ship collisions in recent months, and 15 Marines and a sailor were killed when their transport plane slammed into a soybean field in the Mississippi Delta.
In response, the Navy and the Marine Corps ordered operational pauses for their forces to review safety and readiness procedures. Already the Navy has fired six senior officers, including the commander of America's Japan-based 7th Fleet, citing a loss of confidence in their ability to command.
The top-level firings suggest that broader institutional, cultural and training problems need to be addressed.
A retired four-star Marine general, Mattis said what concerns him most are the root causes of the accidents.
Senior leaders, he said, have to examine not just the specifics of an accident, but "what is the environment, what is the culture, what have we done with training over this time, have we reduced hours, have we increased hours, have some of these been the result of maintenance failure? You've got to look very, very broadly and look for data points and we're doing that."
While Mattis and other military leaders have stopped short of blaming accidents on congressional budget restrictions, they have repeatedly complained that the shortfalls have limited their training and maintenance.
They have called on Congress to end the practice of providing defense budgets by way of stopgap spending measures, which have been used over the past eight years. The short-term bills lock in the Pentagon's budget in at the previous year's level, forcing the services to move money from their weapons modernization and training accounts to pay for current missions.
Asked if military commanders are afraid to admit it if their troops are unprepared, Mattis said no.
While acknowledging that "we're almost hardwired to say 'can do,'" Mattis said that in peacetime operations commanders are required to ensure their troops are ready, and they will often ask for more training time when needed.
"We reward people for raising their hand and saying 'no more,'" he said. "We've had people actually stop training where they thought their troops needed to rehearse before they went forward with it. That's not that unusual. So I am not concerned right now that we're rewarding the wrong behavior."
He added, however, that military leaders also must make sure they're not always saying they can do more with less.
Mattis' comments came a day before Navy leaders are set to testify to Congress on the two ship collisions, and what they've done to remedy any problems in the force.
"We've got to find out why we suddenly have had this spate of incidents," said Mattis. "Right now, as I look at each of the services, they're doing the right things."