Members of the House Armed Services Committee pressed Navy and Marine Corps leaders Wednesday on the question of just how ready U.S. forces were should a major conflict break out.
At a formal hearing Wednesday afternoon, lawmakers focused on three fatal accidents in the Pacific that were examined by ProPublica last year, two involving Navy destroyers slamming into commercial vessels in 2017 and one 2018 midair crash between two Marine Corps planes.
In each of the accidents, ProPublica found that the crews were dangerously undertrained, undermanned and working with faulty or degraded equipment. Warnings about unsafe conditions were ignored up the chain of command.
“We can do better. We must do better,” Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., said. “We should never sacrifice the safety of our Marines, upon whose backs our nation’s safety is carried.”
Related: A Marine Squadron Leader Begged for Help Before a Deadly Midair Crash. Now Congress Wants Answers
Committee members cited ProPublica’s reporting repeatedly as they demanded answers from senior military leaders about what was being done to improve the state of the country’s front-line troops.
“We need to be absolutely certain these things do not happen again,” Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said during the joint hearing held by the subcommittees on readiness and seapower and projection forces. Garmendi called ProPublica’s reporting “an enormous service to the men and women in uniform and the general public.”
Vice Adm. Richard Brown, the Navy’s surface forces commander, assured lawmakers that the Navy was no longer sending out ships on missions without required training, and when it had to, the actions would have to be approved by senior Navy commanders. The men and women on Navy ships, he said, now had a direct line of communication to express safety concerns to higher commands.
“There must be a balance between that insatiable demand for forces and maintenance and training,” Brown said.
Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, the Marine Corps’ deputy commandant for aviation, acknowledged that the Japan-based squadron involved in a fatal 2018 crash was “still not up to where they should be” in regards to being fully prepared for combat. The condition of their jets, he said, has improved, but they are still short on qualified Marines and still would not be able to complete some essential assignments if war were to break out.
But he said top commanders were working to improve training and send more Marines to the Pacific.
“We’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Rudder said.
Yet both commanders insisted American forces in the Pacific could fight effectively if the need arose.
After the 2018 tragedy that killed six Marines off the coast of Japan, the Marine Corps told the public its investigation had found the squadron’s aviators and leaders were reckless and blame for the accident rested largely with them. The commander of the unit, Fighter Attack Squadron 242, was relieved of his command.
But ProPublica revealed that a second probe — called a safety investigation, and kept confidential — traced blame for the mishap higher up, finding senior commanders knowingly gave the squadron faulty equipment and ignored repeated pleas for more time and resources to properly train. Those conclusions were never shared with the public or the families of the dead Marines.
Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., questioned the wisdom of the Marine Corps withholding investigative findings about deadly crashes from the public. Gallagher suggested accountability might need to go yet higher up the Marine Corps chain of command.
“I’m not sure taking it out on the commanding officer is where blame needs to be laid,” he said.
Gallagher pointed to ProPublica’s findings that the Marine Corps’ public report falsely or misleadingly claimed that Ambien use and sexual promiscuity had contributed to a disregard for safety issues within the squadron.
“The report remains the only thing out there publicly. Are we going to correct the record?” the congressman asked.
Rudder assured him that the Marine Corps was conducting another review into the crash that would determine whether those actions and others needed to be taken.
“They’re looking at all those facts you’re bringing up,” he said.