FORT RUCKER, Ala. — There’s a lot of good news for the Army with respect to preventing loss through proactive risk management. Accidental fatalities continued their decade-long decline and reached record lows during fiscal 2015.
Most notable for last fiscal year – the safest on record to date – we saw substantial decreases in fatalities due to weapons and explosives mishaps (down 67 percent), motorcycle accidents (down 24 percent) and crashes in private motor vehicles (down 38 percent). We attribute this steady decline to steadfast efforts by Army leaders at all levels.
Senior commanders are holding junior officers and safety professionals accountable for their comprehensive safety programs and execution of prudent risk management under the mission command framework. Soldiers themselves are modifying their behavior and becoming more safety and risk conscious than ever before. We’ve been promoting awareness and risk reduction measures for individuals and organizations in both their on- and off-duty activities, and it’s encouraging to see their effects on preventing unnecessary loss.
However, the environment is changing, and we must step back to observe the hazards and controls required to continue maintaining this downward trend. The Army Operating Concept of unknowns and unknowables carries with it new hazards and risks. Despite much of the force transitioning back to home station, training for decisive action maneuver is new to many Soldiers who’ve been focused on counterinsurgency operations for the past decade. This includes maneuvering mass-mounted formations, coordinating fire and maneuver, and operating at low-level flight altitudes required to obtain a position of advantage against a sophisticated, hybrid threat.
In addition, the regionally aligned force concept presents unique challenges of a more dispersed force in unfamiliar terrain with young leaders serving on the frontiers with multinational partners who may have differences in risk management and decision-making. Army forces continue to be in high demand, and we must not let down our guard.
It is largely these reasons, as well as the realignment of resources, that caused Army leaders concern during the first few months of fiscal 2016. A rash of rotary-wing mishaps during the first quarter resulted in a 300-percent rise in year-to-date aviation fatalities that persisted well into the New Year, but both actual losses and the Class A accident rate have stabilized and are comparable to recent historical data. While this series of tragic events seems to have been a statistical anomaly, we clearly must take swift action to protect Soldiers and Army equipment from unnecessary loss.
That being said, aviation is experiencing some readjustment pains. After reaching a decade-plus low in fiscal 2013, Class A-C flight mishaps have increased 40 percent in the years since. And, counter to previous trends, nondeployed mishaps now account for about 70 percent of our Class A accidents. These issues are indicative of the training and risk management challenges we face as budgets and manpower decline.
Aviators must train on a wider array of tasks to succeed in a decisive action training environment. Some skills, such as attack helicopters taking on increased scout and reconnaissance roles and manned and unmanned teaming, are new. However, traditional tasks like combined arms maneuver skills have stagnated or deteriorated due to extended counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Terrain and nap-of-the-earth flight, hovering fire, external loads, collective gunnery and larger-scale multi-aircraft operations are becoming increasingly important. We can expect a transitional increase in risk as we reset task lists and go beyond currency to build new proficiencies.
The shift from COIN to decisive action and combined arms maneuver will require aviation units to increase overall proficiency from team/platoon to company/battalion level maneuver. Aviators will be encountering the same hazards as always, but both risk levels and accident probability will rise as flying hours, time on the controls and frequency of task iterations decrease. If we fail to properly identify transitional hazards and mitigate risk to acceptable levels, the outcome could be an identifiable upward trend in aviation mishaps.
Unfortunately, the challenges are not limited to just flying. Air traffic services and Soldier maintainers suffer from increased use of contractors in deployed locations. Force manning levels are limiting the population of deployable Soldiers, driving units to sometimes leave entire ATS and selected maintenance support at home. In turn, these personnel lose valuable training time and proficiency as they pass the deployment without aircraft to maintain or control. Maintenance and ATS may also be targets of cutbacks and streamlining to meet budget shortfalls, resulting in increased risk due to reduced operating hours, changes to minimum staffing levels and use of less experienced personnel. Commanders must employ decisive and robust risk management in support areas to ensure safe operations.
In response to these and other concerns, the Army Chief of Staff and Vice Chief of Staff recently directed a holistic assessment of Army Aviation to examine leadership, readiness, training, sustainment, resourcing, policy and other areas as required. While this assessment will certainly yield benefits for the force over time, commanders can take action now to assess their aircrew training programs, aggressively manage transitional risk and optimize existing resources. Higher collective training proficiency coupled with proactive hazard identification, risk reduction and rigorous mission risk approval processes will prevent loss and buttress readiness in every formation.
We still have an opportunity to make 2016 a banner year for Army safety by working together to meet our common challenges. Nothing we are facing is insurmountable as long as we adapt, train and mitigate risk through to safe mission execution. And in the process, we will produce safer Soldiers who live by their unit’s safety culture even off duty. We owe them nothing less as leaders than our very best efforts to preserve life and prevent needless loss.