Military

US Marine Chief Combat Developer: Aviation an ‘Inherently Dangerous Business’

By Dan Parsons | July 31, 2018
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The U.S. Marine Corps Combat Development Command/Combat Development and Integration (MCCDC/CD&I) Force Development Strategic Plan is briefed at Little Hall Nov. 23 by Lt. Gen. Robert S. Walsh, who serves as commanding general of MCCDC and deputy commandant of CD&I.

During a nearly 40-year career in the Marine Corps, much of it spent flying fighter jets, Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh has seen a lot of aircraft crash — sufficient experience for him to be skeptical that military aviation is in a crisis.

Currently the deputy commandant for combat development and integration, Walsh began his career as an F-4 Phantom pilot, later transitioning to the F-18 Hornet and serving a stint as an instructor at the U.S. Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, better known as Top Gun.

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Four pilots were killed in aviation mishaps the day Walsh checked into his first aviation squadron, he told R&WI during a July 30 interview in his office in Quantico, Virginia.

“Flying is an inherently dangerous business,” Walsh said. “Burying pilots and air crew is something I’ve done my whole career.”

A comprehensive look at aviation mishaps since the end of major combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan likely will show a “normal” rate of crashes per 100,000 flight hours, he said, but recent non-combat aviation casualties appear stark in the absence of combat deaths on the ground.

In 2017, just 21 U.S. troops died in combat while 80 were killed in non-combat aviation mishaps that military leaders have blamed on a lack of readiness, spare parts and modernization funding. Congress included $40 billion in the fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act to curb the trend and will establish a blue-ribbon commission to study aviation mishaps over the past five years in hopes of diagnosing the problem.

Walsh pointed out that ground forces bore the brunt of combat casualties in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as they do in most modern warfare. Infantry in close combat is much more susceptible to enemy fire than are aircraft supporting them in uncontested airspace. Now that large-scale combat operations in both wars have ceased, aviation again becomes one of the riskiest military activities, he said.

“No matter how much we talk about precision weapons and indirect fire, standoff weapons, in conflict, it’s the infantry in close combat that bears most casualties,” he said. “When you step outside combat, then most casualties usually are in the air. … It’s always kind of been that way when you are not in a conflict.”

Walsh gave the example of the Marine Corps KC-130 that crashed in July 2017 in Mississippi, killing all 16 servicemembers aboard. The aircraft was at cruise altitude when it burst into flames and broke up.

“I don’t think you’re ever going to prevent something like that crash from happening,” Walsh said. “It’s not like pulling your car over to the side of the road if something goes wrong.”

Walsh admits that Marine Corps readiness is below optimal because of high operational tempo and lean years without adequate operations and maintenance funding for flight hours. The aircraft themselves have been flown in combat zones and on deployments for decades without significant refit, he said.

Long known as the service that happily takes old F-18 Hornets and hand-me-down tanks to war, the Marine Corps is in the midst of replacing or upgrading every type model series of aircraft in its fleet. It has nearly fielded the program of record for the UH-1Y, AH-1Z and MV-22 Osprey. While Marine Corps V-22 production is nearing an end, the service has begun a new program with Boeing and Bell called the Common Configuration-Readiness and Modernization program (CCRAM) to baseline and upgrade the operational fleet.

The Marine Corps also is the first service to field and deploy the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, its version being the short-takeoff and vertical-landing-capable F-35B.

Meanwhile, the Marine Corps has taken delivery of the first of its new CH-53K, which will be the largest, heaviest and most modern helicopter in the U.S. Military when operational.

“Our readiness is below what it should be, but that won’t be fixed just by throwing money at the problem,” Walsh said. “We probably could do better.”

In June, the U.S. Army safety director, Brig. Gen. David Francis, testified before Congress that the service found no direct correlation between how much time pilots get in the cockpit and the recent spate of catastrophic non-combat mishaps.

“Our data do not indicate a correlation between the execution of flight hours and mishaps,” Francis, commander of the Army combat readiness center and director of Army safety, said at a June 13 House Armed Services subcommittee on tactical air and land forces hearing. “We just cannot correlate that data, one to the other.”

An ongoing study of Army class-A aviation mishaps shows most are caused by human error. Less than one-fourth of all major mishaps are attributed to mechanical failure and none of the Army’s rotorcraft fleets suffer more class-A mishaps than others, he said.

Class-A mishaps — which cause $2 million in damage, a fatality or both — spike at the outset of major combat operations. As expected, more helicopters crash and more pilots are killed in the early days of conflict, Francis said.

Correction: This article incorrectly described a Class-A mishaps as one that causes $1 million in damage, a fatality or both. A Class-A mishap is defined by the Defense Department as one that causes $2 million or  more in damage and/or a fatality.

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