GOP chairman: Deadly helicopter crash shows readiness issues

GOP chairman: Deadly helicopter crash shows readiness issues
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The Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee is slamming the Obama administration after an investigation into a deadly Marine Corps helicopter crash found issues with readiness such as maintenance and training.

“The factors that led to this tragedy are evident across the services. If left unaddressed, they will invariably result in more tragic loss of life,” Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said in a statement Thursday.

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“The Obama administration's legacy will be framed by their decision to play political games with defense funding, rather than facing these problems head-on and working with Congress to fix them. These challenges were years in the making and will take years to correct. It is time to stop playing games and get to fixing these problems immediately," he said.

In January, two CH-53 transport helicopters collided off the north shore of the Hawaiian island of Oahu. All 12 crew members aboard the helicopters were killed.

The Marine investigation into the incident, released publicly Thursday, found the immediate cause of the crash was pilot error. The results were first reported this week by the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California at Berkeley.

During the nighttime training exercise Jan. 14, the investigation found, one helicopter, known as Pegasus 32, outpaced the other, known as Pegasus 31. Trying to maintain proper formation, Pegasus 31 accelerated just as Pegasus 32 was making a sharp left turn and crashed into the lead helicopter.

The low light probably made it difficult for the crew to see that the distance between the two helicopters was rapidly shrinking, according to the investigation.

But outside of the immediate cause of the crash, the investigation also found a squadron suffering from severe readiness issues.

The squadron, known as Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463 (HMH-463), suffered from too few operational helicopters, too few flying hours, low morale and fatigue. 

For example, in the first quarter of fiscal 2016, the squadron under-executed its flight-hour goal by 21.4 percent and by January was 605 flight hours behind its flight-hour plan.

“By January 2016, many pilots in HMH-463 believed they were not ready for combat as they felt they would not be able to safely execute certain tasks, like safely landing a helicopter at night, because they were not logging enough flight training hours,” the investigation said.

Thornberry and other Republicans have been pushing for more money in this year’s defense policy bill to combat what they describe as a readiness crisis. They've done so in the House-passed version of the bill, which would use money from a war fund to pay for base budget items such as training. That would leave the war fund dry by April, forcing the next president to request more money.

The Obama administration opposes the tactic, describing it as a gimmick that could leave troops deployed overseas without any money and one that skirts budget caps on defense spending while leaving them in place on nondefense spending.

The Senate-passed version of the bill does not include that tactic, and House-Senate conference negotiations are expected to finish in Congress's lame-duck session after the Nov. 8 election. 

The investigation into the helicopter crash, Thornberry said Thursday, illustrates the readiness issues.

“While this investigation reveals pilot error in the final seconds of this mission, it is clear that in the months, days and hours beforehand, the department failed these Marines,” he said. “I am particularly concerned by the readiness factors like maintenance and training that contributed to this fatal crash.”

The issues span every service branch, he added.

“Because of its size and structure, the stress on the Marine Corps is unmistakable,” Thornberry said. “But, these readiness problems are strikingly similar to those faced by our sailors, soldiers and airmen each and every day."

He commended those in the services who have spoken up about readiness issues but said too many leaders have not.

"There are some tenacious men and women serving in the Marine Corps and the other services who are sounding the alarm and are leaning forward to fix these problems," he said. "Unfortunately, too many others in leadership positions are in denial or have been reluctant to speak up."