While root causes have yet to be discovered, one thing is clear, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said Thursday: The Defense Department and Congress aren't giving the problem as much scrutiny as they should.
"Give or take five, we have lost as many service members in 2017 to [military-related] accidents as were killed in Las Vegas," Rep. William "Mac" Thornberry told reporters and experts during a briefing at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. The current death toll in Las Vegas is 58, with more than 500 wounded.
"And many more that have been killed in combat. So I was very serious when describing a moral obligation," the Texas Republican said. "I think Congress and the department have to provide the best training, the best equipment, the best support for the people who are risking their lives for us -- and I don't think we have been giving them this."
Thornberry said empirical trends of training and combat accidents are "going up," but cautioned they can't be easily compared or contrasted.
"The trends are not exactly the same in every service, and sometimes they'll pick out a certain category," he said.
For example, Thornberry said he's followed the Air Force's accident trend, which he said "has not gone up, and the reason is because the Air Force is not flying as much."
"The number of hours in the cockpit that their pilots are getting are less than they were in the hollow military in the 1970s," he said.
The Air Force has seen several accidents this year:
- Three special operations airmen died when their U-28 single-engine turboprop aircraft crashed during a training flight in New Mexico in March.
- An Air National Guard F-16C Fighting Falcon fighter jet crashed in April near Washington, D.C. The pilot ejected safely.
- In September, both pilots ejected safely when two A-10C Thunderbolt IIs crashed at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.
- That same week, Lt. Col. Eric Schultz, 44, died from injuries sustained in a classified crash of an unknown test aircraft at Nellis' training range.
The Navy has suffered multiple ship collisions this year:
- In May, the USS Lake Champlain collided with a fishing boat off South Korea.
- In June, the USS Fitzgerald collided with a cargo ship near Japan, resulting in the deaths of seven sailors.
- In August, the USS John S. McCain collided with a merchant vessel in the Pacific, claiming the lives of 10 sailors.
The Navy's problems aren't limited to ship collisions.
Ongoing mishaps with the service's T-45 Goshawk training aircraft continue to puzzle officials, especially in the wake of the most recent crash this week in which a student pilot and an instructor died during a training flight in Tennessee.
"This T-45 [or]deal perplexes me," Thornberry said. "We lost another one this week, [and] I have no doubt the Navy is taking that issue seriously, but … I don't understand why we can't figure out what's causing the oxygen problem to fix it."
All 170 of the service's T-45s were grounded after instructor pilots complained about aircraft safety in light of a surge of hypoxia-like incidents.
"Now we don't know if the oxygen problem is what caused this crisis," Thornberry said, referencing the crash in Tennessee.
"Part of the issue is, it takes weeks and months to do investigations of airplanes. I'm just beginning to understand this -- that there is a cumulative effect here," he said. "I cannot flip a switch and put zillions more dollars into operations and maintenance and make this go away."
"It's cumulative, it occurs over time, and the training you lose will never be regained," he added.
"It didn't just spring up on us this year, but it is the cumulative effect of budget dysfunction, some mismanagement, and some ignoring what's happening that has brought us to this point," Thornberry said.