As an accident during a training bombing run today left six people dead in Kuwait, it may seem like the U.S. military has suffered an unusual number of fatal mishaps in recent months.
But military statistics indicate serious accidents have been running at about their normal rate, and they have been generally decreasing over the past two decades.
True, in December, an emergency landing by a transport plane in Kuwait killed three people, and the crash of a V-22 Osprey aircraft killed four, prompting the fleet to be grounded and a reconsideration of the aircraft.
Three more accidents grabbed headlines in February: a crash of a Marine Corps Harrier, killing two; the collision between the submarine USS Greeneville and a Japanese fishing boat, killing nine civilians, including four boys; and the collision between two Army helicopters, killing six.
This month, before today's accidental bombing in Kuwait, 21 people died in the crash of a National Guard plane in Georgia.
But according to the latest Pentagon data, the armed services are not experiencing an unusual number deadly or permanently, fully disabling accidents, or those costing more than $1 million in damages, called "Class A" mishaps — at least not involving aircraft.
For fiscal year 2001 so far, which began Oct. 1, the services had only two more Class A accidents than they did for the same time a year earlier — 24 as opposed to 22. In those, three more people lost their lives in those accidents than died in 2000 — 20 compared to 17.
Accidents Per Flight Time
It's difficult to draw meaningful trends using military accident statistics for several months, or even year-to-year. The military may go for months without a mishap causing a large number of deaths or injuries. And then a transport aircraft might go down killing 19, as occurred last April in another Osprey accident.
But the Pentagon does have a method for calculating Class A aviation mishaps over different periods of time, and that method — the number of accidents per estimated 100,000 flight hours — suggests the number of serious aviation accidents in recent months are on par with recent years.
That rate for 2001 so far is 1.28 Class A aviation accidents per 100,000 flight hours. In 2000 during the same time period, it was slightly less, 1.19. But this year's rate so far is not much higher than the rate for all of 2000, 1.25, and significantly less than what it was in 1999, 1.61. In 1990, the rate hit a high of around 2.1 Class A mishaps per 100,000 flight hours.
The Marines have had a "drastic" decrease in accidents this fiscal year, says Craig Schilder, a spokesman for the Pentagon's safety and health branch.
"It works just like U.S. industry — if top leaders are interested in saving people's lives, the accidents go down. But leaders must be active and engaged and hold managers accountable," he says.
Safer Than Driving a Car?
If you take a longer-term view, Pentagon statistics show the rate of death of military personnel in non-hostile accidents has been on a fairly steady decline since 1980. Then, there were about 77 deaths from non-combat accidents per every 100,000 personnel. By 1998, the rate had decreased to about 30.
There correspondingly has been a general trend of decline in raw numbers since 1990, when 222 people were killed in on-duty accidents in flight, on ship, or ashore. In 2000, 113 were killed that way. But when dealing with the raw numbers, it must be noted that active duty and reserve troops numbers also decreased by 10 percent over the past decade. That's why it is helpful to talk in terms of rates.
And while no one who enters the military can think they are entering the safest line of work, being a soldier during peacetime just might be safer than you think.
Statistics prepared by the Army, Navy and Marines show that decisively more military personnel have been killed in recent years from traffic accidents than from peacetime on-the-job hazards. The Marine Corps says 59 percent of deaths were from traffic accidents from 1996 to 2000, and 9 percent were from personal recreation. Similarly, 59 percent of Navy deaths were traffic related, and 18 percent were from recreation. The percentage of traffic deaths appeared even higher for the Army during the past two years.
But traffic accidents too have been on the decline over the past 10 to 15 years, even when reduced force size is taken into account, says Schilder.