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Why The Number Of Military Aviation Accidents Has Sharply Increased


More American troops are dying because of aviation accidents.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: And we have a breaking development in the crash of an Air Force F-16 jet outside of Las Vegas. The Air Force...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: And some breaking news back here at home about our troops - a U.S. Marine helicopter crash. The chopper went down in this remote part...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Tonight, we're learning the identities of the two pilots who died during an Apache training accident.

CORNISH: All of those incidents happened just this month. And an investigation by the Military Times says this is part of a sharp increase in aviation accidents over the last five years. They involve all of the military's manned warplanes. Tara Copp is the Pentagon bureau chief for the Military Times. She's here in the studio. Thanks so much.

TARA COPP: Hi. Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Now, your reporting found an uptick of aviation accidents beginning roughly around 2013. You have the data through the fiscal year 2017. How many service members were killed during that time? And just, like, give us a sense of the increase that we're talking about here.

COPP: So 133 aviators, pilots or their crew, were killed during this time. And you started to hear this even before 2013. Each year after, the different heads of the services - the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines - they would come up and testify, and they would talk about the different issues they were having because of these cuts and because of the continuing resolutions, the short-term funding gaps because Congress ever since has not been able to pass a budget on time. This has real-world implications for pilots, for ships because it affects their planning. It affects how they fund a squadron, where a plane goes. All of that, as one Navy aviator told me, involves and increases risk.

CORNISH: Let's dig into that a little more because as you describe this correlating with the budget cuts that did go into effect - right? - by 2013 - this was known at the time as sequestration - what kind of choices did the military have to make, and why do you think that is connected to the accidents?

COPP: So when the first cut in 2013 occurred, the services had to basically take out $37 billion in their base budget in 10 months. And when you have to make that kind of level, steep cut, you go for personnel; you go for training because those are easier things to cut than major weapons systems. And so you saw that they cut training. They cut joint exercises. They started to cut pilot hours. And then they went after some of the personnel. Anyone who had 15 years or more was able to retire with benefits.

CORNISH: And you called this an exodus of maintenance personnel.

COPP: An exodus of maintenance personnel. You also saw some of your more seasoned pilots go who could train the next generation of both maintainers and pilots.

CORNISH: And at the same time, more has been required - right? - of our military during this period.

COPP: Exactly. You know, months after those cuts took effect, you saw the Islamic State go through Iraq and Syria. You then saw China announce that it was building manmade islands in the South China Sea. You know, Russia invaded Crimea.

CORNISH: The last budget reportedly added more money for defense. Do you think that this will help?

COPP: Money isn't going to solve this alone. Even if you purchase a Super Hornet, that's a 1 1/2- to two-year buy before you actually see that aircraft. It's not just new things. It's time. It's seeing some of this pressure that's on the services to respond to everything, to give the pilots time to get their training hours back up.

CORNISH: In the meantime, what have you heard about morale? How has this affected things?

COPP: When I talked to the head of Marine Corps Aviation, specific to 2013 and 2015 when these cuts really started to take effect and they had to respond to ISIS, morale was quite low. I heard from a mother just today who told me from the family perspective, morale is quite low. And morale in the squadron is quite low because the pilots aren't seeing these problems addressed. They see planes are not ready to fly. They see incidents where they're going to funerals because something happened in the cockpit that could have been prevented. And so they're hoping that all of this attention will get some answers for those issues.

CORNISH: Tara Copp is the Pentagon bureau chief for Military Times. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

COPP: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Tara Copp is also the author of the book "The Warbird." We asked the Pentagon about her reporting. A spokeswoman sent a statement that says in part, the secretary of defense has made it clear that the safety of our personnel is a top priority. The Department of Defense remains committed to investigating all mishaps. It went on to say one mishap is too many, and we honor the tremendous risk our men and women undertake to serve our nation at home and abroad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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