Combat training is risky--and sometimes deadly

November 04, 1990|By David Morrison

Washington With not a shot fired in anger, 42 uniformed Americans have died in accidents in the Persian Gulf region since Operation Desert Shield kicked off in early August -- 19 more than U.S. fatalities in the December 1989 invasion of Panama.

This is hardly the first time that realistic combat training exercises have exacted a heavy toll. From 1979 to 1989, more than 15,000 soldiers, sailors and fliers have been killed in training accidents -- almost half the number of U.S. battlefield deaths in Korea.

That grim statistic highlights an enduring dilemma for military planners. While only training rigorous enough to approximate combat conditions will save lives and win battles in wartime, that same training can demand a terrible price.

And so the 10 sailors scalded to death last Tuesday when a steam pipe burst aboard the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima as it steamed out of Bahrain for a 10-day training exercise in the northern Arabian Sea.

And so the Marine killed that same day when his jeep overturned during a night maneuver.

And so the 27 deaths in aviation accidents related to the gulf deployment, and six other freak disasters such as the sailor electrocuted aboard his ship.

Such tragedies are largely an unavoidable fact of daily military life. But some types of deadly military mishaps, critics charge, are imminently avoidable. A controversial case in point involves the use of night vision goggles by helicopter pilots. First devised for U.S. ground forces in Vietnam, the goggles amplify scant star and moon light, allowing U.S. units to fight under cover of darkness.

But it is no mean feat to pilot a speeding chopper at treetop -- or sand dune -- height while "looking through a pair of toilet paper tubes," as the cumbersome goggles have been described.

Pilots also complain that the goggles are not much help on dark, overcast nights, that unexpected exposure to bright light can be blinding and that Army training in the safe use of the goggles is insufficient.

In Saudi Arabia, four of the Army's five worst chopper accidents have involved night goggles. The choppers were trashed, but no lives were lost.

On Oct. 8, however, eight Marines were killed when two Hueys apparently collided during a pre-dawn flight over the North Arabian Sea.

Nor were these the first such disasters. Since 1979, as Representative Frank McCloskey, D-Ind., noted during a March 1989 House Armed Services Committee hearing on the goggles, 137 service members have been killed in night-flying accidents.

Army officials, however, have insisted upon attributing these accidents to "human error."

"We train as we fight, because we will fight at night," insisted Army spokeswoman Maj. Nancy Burt.

"That is particularly significant in Saudi Arabia, because the cloak of darkness provides camouflage against the enemy in a country that is basically composed of featureless terrain."

Proponents of night flying argue that night vision devices paid off handsomely in the Panama invasion. Launched around midnight, that attack was spearheaded by some 140 choppers. The goggles "enabled us to do a mission we otherwise would not have been able to do," Army Col. Billy Miller, who commanded the 160th Special Operations Aviation Company, later told a reporter.

"If we had to do the same missions in daytime, I think my losses would have been catastrophic," Colonel Miller added. The 160th lost three helicopters, and two pilots, to enemy fire.

The debate over what constitutes acceptable risks in combat training took on new momentum with the recent publication of details about the Great Slapton Sands Disaster, one of the more lethal foul-ups of the past.

On the night of April 28, 1944, 200 ships rehearsed on the English coast for the Allied landing on the French coast. German torpedo boats darted into their midst. In the ensuing confusion, 749 U.S. troops were killed.

A dozen years after Slapton Sands, tragedy struck again during night training at Parris Island, S.C., when Marine Staff Sgt. Matthew C. McKeon marched 74 recruits into a tidal swamp called Ribbon Creek. Six drowned. McKeon was convicted of negligent homicide, and, under public pressure, the Marine Corps was forced to go easier in its field drills.

Objections to the rigors of realistic combat exercises continue -- and there are signs that they are having some effect.

Though the Army stonewalled criticism of its night goggle training procedures, it is issuing advanced ANVA-6 goggles in place of older models designed for ground troops, and as of mid-September, pilots have been restricted from flying lower than 150 feet until proficient in the unique conditions of 'u skimming the Arabian sands.

"In Saudi Arabia, it's tough because of the featureless, colorless terrain," Major Burt said of night flying there. "But," she insisted, "it is doable, and it is doable safely."

David Morrison is national security correspondent for the National Journal.

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