Marines Suspend All AAV Water Ops as Search for 8 Missing Troops Continues

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Lt. Gen. Joseph Osterman, commander of I Marine Expeditionary Force, speaks at a press conference at Camp Pendleton, California, July 31, 2020, regarding the amphibious assault vehicle mishap. (Screengrab/DVIDS webcast)
Lt. Gen. Joseph Osterman, commander of I Marine Expeditionary Force, speaks at a press conference at Camp Pendleton, California, July 31, 2020, regarding the amphibious assault vehicle mishap. (Screengrab/DVIDS webcast)

The Marine Corps will inspect its entire fleet of amphibious assault vehicles after one took on water during a training mishap, leaving one dead, two in critical condition and eight missing.

Search and rescue efforts continue off the coast of California to locate seven Marines and a sailor whose AAV sank during a Thursday training exercise. The troops, assigned to the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, were training near San Clemente Island, northwest of San Diego, when their vehicle began filling with water.

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"I've directed an immediate suspension of amphibious assault vehicle water operations until the causal factors of this mishap are better understood," Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger said during a Friday press conference from Camp Pendleton in California. "All AAVs across the fleet will be inspected."

Three AAVs and a rescue boat were in the water Thursday night conducting amphibious training between 1,000 and 2,000 yards from San Clemente Island, Lt. Gen. Joseph Osterman, commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force, said during the press conference.

An amphibious assault vehicle drives onto the beach.
An amphibious assault vehicle drives onto the beach during an amphibious raid aboard Capu Midia, Romania, August 3, 2011 (U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Dwight A. Henderson)

When one of the AAVs began taking on water on its way back to the ship, Osterman said the troops aboard signaled the rest of the unit and immediate response was provided by the rescue boat and two other vehicles.

Eight Marines were rescued, but one later died from his injuries. The Marine Corps has not released his identity, pending 24 hours of family notification. Two other Marines who made it out of the vehicle are undergoing treatment at Scripps Memorial Hospital and the other five have returned to their ship.

"We are still continuing search operations ... for the other seven Marines and sailor who we have not yet found," Osterman said.

Marines in the other AAVs watched the vehicle sink, and because of its 26-ton weight, Osterman said they suspect it sank to the bottom of the ocean.

The area where the mishap occurred is several hundred feet deep, he added, so divers cannot reach the vehicle. The Navy and Coast Guard are assisting the Marine Corps in its search for the missing personnel and the AAV.

Berger said the waterborne operational pause for the Marine Corps' fleet of more than 800 AAVs is being done "out of an abundance of caution." Once the cause of the mishap is determined, he said, service leaders will decide whether the vehicle can resume operations at sea.

"First [we'll] make sure the families are taken care of and that search-and-rescue efforts go with all the support that we want it to," he said. "Then after the investigation is done, we'll see -- as always -- if there are any trends."

Osterman said the age of the AAV that sank wasn't immediately known, but acknowledged that the vehicles were first fielded in the early 1970s. Since then, he said, several modifications have been made to make them safer.

The Marines and sailor were wearing flotation devices along with their normal combat gear. Osterman said some of the Marines who were rescued were floating, indicating the gear was working properly.

Three Navy amphibious ships, a destroyer, several rigid-hull inflatable boats, and a Coast Guard cutter are participating in the search and rescue efforts. There are also Marine, Navy and Coast Guard helicopters looking for the missing eight.

Retired Col. William Preston McLaughlin, who commanded a Marine assault amphibian battalion, said the accident underscores the need for the service to field the new Amphibious Combat Vehicle to replace its fleet of aging AAVs. The Marine Corps expects to deliver some of the new ACVs to units later this year.

"I would think after this accident, they might want to look at maybe fielding that equipment a little bit more quickly and putting it into units' hands like the 15th MEU -- those frontline units," he said.

Berger and Osterman both said for now, their focus is on the families of the fallen and injured, and finding the missing service members.

"I'd like to thank everyone for their heartfelt condolences on behalf of our Marines, sailors and family members affected by this tragic mishap," Berger said. "Let me add my own condolences and prayers to theirs and ask everyone to keep the families of these service members in their thoughts."

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

Related: 1 Marine Dead, 8 More Missing After AAV Accident Off California Coast

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