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‘We must do better’ in wake of Marine deaths, lawmakers say

U.S. Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis and Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK), a majority member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, hold a joint press conference before departing Fairbanks, Alaska, June 24, 2018. (Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith/Department of Defense)

In a somber congressional hearing on Navy and Marine Corps readiness, lawmakers expressed condolences, read aloud the names of the Marines who died in a recent crash and urged newfound vigilance for the military.

Six Marines were killed when a KC-130J tanker plane and an F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet crashed midair off the coast of Japan last week. One pilot from the Hornet survived, but the other did not. On Tuesday, the five missing Marines from the KC-130J were declared dead, ending days of searching for them.

On Wednesday, several lawmakers shared their thoughts and prayers to the fallen Marines and gratitude to their families for their service during a joint hearing for the Senate Armed Services Committee subpanels on sea power and readiness and management support.

“We have to do better, we must do better, all of us, including the Congress,” Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee subpanel on readiness and management support, told top Navy and Marine Corps officials. “We have to do better and what we need to do on our side is to make sure you get the authorization and appropriation bills on time. [Temporary funding bills] that you’ve been forced to endure for over a decade don’t help readiness and contribute to the problem.”

With his comments, Sullivan highlighted the Marine deaths as well as the 17 sailors lost in last year’s collisions involving the USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald. The McCain set sail again Nov. 27, 15 months following its fatal August 2017 crash.

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“Thank you for keeping your thoughts and prayers in mind for those Marines affected,” Navy Secretary Richard Spencer told lawmakers of last week’s crash. “And I would go one step further and please say keep your thoughts and prayers for all our Marine Corps teams that are out in harm’s way.”

It has been more than six months since the panels had received an update from the Navy and Marine Corps on their posture for the 2019 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.

Spencer testified Wednesday alongside Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller, Vice Adm. William Moran, vice chief of naval operations, and John Pendleton, director of defense capabilities and management at the U.S. watchdog agency Government and Accountability Office.

More than one year ago, Pendleton said he had the “grim duty” to report that Navy training was not up to its own standards with requirements being waived at an alarming rate. The Navy in a series of internal studies concluded this lack of training had contributed to last year’s deadly collisions.

Ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, Pendleton visited Japan and discovered positive findings.

“What I found was encouraging, the Navy has stepped up training …and they’ve committed to dedicated training time going forward,” Pendleton told lawmakers. “Things had improved remarkably, however this is keeping sailors very busy.”

In talking to sailors, Pendleton learned while morale is high, servicemembers are still seeing 100-hour work weeks. And that’s driving concerns that the Navy is not yet putting enough sailors on ships to cover its workload and now a study is underway to examine ship manning requirements.

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Pendleton said there’s decreased availability of ships and submarines due to maintenance delays. Since 2012, the Navy has lost more than 27,000 days of ship and submarine availability, and this year was particularly challenging, Pendleton said. There’s also been related shortages for aircrafts, he added.

“Completing maintenance on time has proven to be a wicked problem,” Pendleton said.

It will take significant time to rebuild the readiness of the ship, submarine and aviation fleets, and it will require sustained attention, he said.

This, as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has issued an ambitious directive for military aircraft to reach an 80 percent readiness goal for next year, which might not be reached in time.

“It is a stretch goal, but it is a stretch goal we will take,” Spencer said in response to questions on whether the 80 percent goal can be reached.

Spencer also said there’s already been marked readiness improvements, especially with a boost in funding in recent years that’s been driving the changes. However, the service needs time to reach its goals.

“You are seeing improvement, you’ll hear it today, but the rate of improvement must increase and we do have plans to address that,” he said. “And while we have much to do, we are well underway.”

In line with the National Defense Strategy to defend against great power competitors such as China and Russia, the Navy is working to build a more lethal and ready force, strengthen alliances and reform the way it does business, Spencer said.

Consistent funding will be key to the Navy continuing to meet its goals, Spencer said. Neller and Moran also echoed Spencer’s comments that inconsistent or a dramatic slash in funding could threaten the military’s readiness gains.

“We lose proficiency, we lose expertise,” Moran warned if resources and funding are curtailed.

“Some of the really bad things we’ve seen could increase in terms of their potential, and I’m talking about deaths in training and the activities, that’s the ultimate risk, right?” Sullivan asked. “My biggest concern is we see more of these deaths. None of us should tolerate it. …This is a readiness challenge that’s killing our Marines and our sailors.”

Though the Defense Department budget is set for late into 2019, its next spending plan remains a moving target.

And with a split Congress potentially angling for different budget priorities next year, it could insert a new level of drama for the fiscal year 2020 budget, which begins Oct. 1, 2019.

When lawmakers return for a new congressional session in January, with Democrats in control of the House, they will also need to address spending caps slated to return in 2020 under the Budget Control Act.

“We’re entering a time of divided government in this Congress,” said Sen. Wicker, R-Miss., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee subpanel on sea power. And “we’ll soon have a Republican Senate and a Democratic-controlled House and we’re going to have to join hands as Americans and give you the resources that you need.”

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© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

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