The military services are recovering from an aviation readiness crisis that led to a slew of accidents but still have a "long way to go" to protect personnel, according to Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.
Citing a Military Times report Tuesday, which noted that aviation deaths increased during fiscal 2018 even as the number of accidents declined, Thornberry said aviation deaths in the past six years signal that the Pentagon and Congress must continue supporting maintenance and training across the services.
"We can't slip backward on keeping our focus on readiness issues," he said in a Tuesday meeting with reporters on Capitol Hill.
Between 2013 and 2017, manned aviation accidents rose 40%, resulting in the deaths of 133 service members. Accidents then dropped by 12% -- from 903 in fiscal 2017 to 794 in fiscal 2018 -- according to the report, using data obtained by Military Times through a Freedom of Information Act request.
However, those 794 mishaps in fiscal 2018 resulted in the deaths of 38 pilots or aircrew, a number that worries Thornberry. He said he will support a defense budget of $750 billion to give service members the platforms and support they need to do their jobs.
"If you end up approving less than that, there are consequences," he said. "I'm not willing to compromise on the safety and security of our nation. These aren't just numbers on a sheet. This is life and death, real-world consequences."
The increase in aviation accidents occurred largely as the result of massive cuts to the defense budget in 2013, according to the Military Times report, which also blamed a decrease in maintenance and the number of personnel who work on aircraft, and a decline in flight training hours.
To bolster aviation readiness, Congress increased the Pentagon budget by $39.4 billion in fiscal 2019 and created a congressional commission to study military aviation safety.
Aviators, however, are still dying. In fiscal 2018, the 38 deaths included 24 on training flights, two people killed by rotor blades (although one of those deaths was later ruled a suicide), and one person who died when the fuel tank of a Navy HH-60H Sea Hawk fell on him.
Thirteen more people were killed in military aviation accidents in fiscal 2018 than died in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan during the same period.
Thornberry said he fears his colleagues on the Hill will feel that they've approved legislation and move on.
But he expressed confidence that a deal can be made on the defense budget. "Both parties have a political interest for continuing to make the progress we've begun to make on readiness," he said.
During a hearing April 2 on the Army and Air Force budget requests, however, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., did not sound as sure. He said he had looked at the administration's budget request and heard additional appeals from the Pentagon for more money.
"This has to end, OK?" Smith said. "You cannot eliminate risk and, to a certain extent, you can always come tell us. ... [But we] could spend $1 trillion, and I'm halfway convinced that you'd be sitting there telling us, 'OK, that's great, but here are all the things we can't do.'"
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.