The Pentagon is considering revisions to the dollar amounts and damage levels that qualify an aircraft accident as a major mishap to better reflect the expense of repairing advanced jets. But such changes could lead to less visibility into the actual state of aviation safety, government watchdogs cautioned.
Major aviation accidents are currently classified as Class A, B and C mishaps.
Class A mishaps occur when there’s more than $2 million in damage to the aircraft, the aircraft is destroyed, or its pilot or crew is killed or permanently, totally disabled. Class B mishaps are recorded when aircraft damage ranges from $500,000 to $2 million, a crew member faces permanent partial disability, or three or more persons are sent to the hospital due to the accident. Class C incidents, the least serious of the top three categories, occurs when damage is between $50,000 and $500,000 or an injury results in loss of time from work.
One of the main drivers of the proposed change appears to be the F-35 joint strike fighter and future advance aircraft like it. As of Thursday, when the Navy certified the F-35C carrier variant, F-35s are now operational across the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. When all F-35s are delivered, the Pentagon will have almost 2,500 of the fifth-generation stealth fighters.
Currently, the cost of each aircraft ranges from about $90 million for the Air Force’s F-35A to about $115 million for the Marine Corps’ F-35B short take-off and vertical-landing variant. The aircraft’s advanced coatings and sensors make even small incidents, such as towing accidents, rise to a Class A threshold.
“That is definitely something we are talking to the other services about,” said Air Force Chief of Safety Maj. Gen. John Rauch. “As we fly these more expensive airplanes — once again, very cognizant of the effect of taxpayer dollars that it takes” for repairs — “we want to make sure we categorize the right thing.”
The Marine Corps “is actively working with an OSD-led task force to improve mishap classifications to be able to better correlate mishaps with causes and readiness," said spokesman Capt. Christopher Harrison.
“Regardless of potential changes to the mishap classification method, the Marine Corps remains committed to ensuring the safety of our aircrews and the air worthiness of all our aircraft," Harrison said.
In April, the Military Times reported that across the services, aviation mishaps had spiked almost 40 percent since fiscal year 2013 for their fighters, bombers and tanker aircraft. In the weeks that followed, Congress cited the work as it looked more closely for root causes and now House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., sponsored legislation to establish a national commission to investigate the state of military aviation safety.
The mishap class criteria, which are set by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, haven’t been reset in about a decade, Rauch said.
New criteria “would need to be well thought-out. We would not just want to double the rate or double the size,” Rauch said. “What happens with your aging platforms that are [less expensive?] … Would that now mask problems you have? So that’s the balance you have.”
They will also need to address how the services will be able to accurately report trends, Rauch said. “My concern would be, how do you compare FY20 to FY18?”
Dan Grazier, a military fellow with the Project on Government Oversight, said any new classification system would need to ensure those smaller incidents — which former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called “leading indicators” at a hearing last year following Military Times’ investigation into the sharp rise in aviation accidents — don’t get lost.
“There are obviously issues with those mishaps that go beyond just the financial,” Grazier said, and raising the bar on what gets reported as a major mishap could mean that small symptoms of potentially larger, systemic problems “won’t receive as much attention.”
It’s unlikely the changes would take place soon because any reset would have to start with a new fiscal year, and fiscal 2019 ends in September. But they could be in place by October 2020, the start of fiscal 2021, Rauch said.
In a statement, the Pentagon confirmed it is looking at revising those categories as part of a larger effort to address military readiness and safety. The memo was signed last July by then-Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who is now serving as the acting secretary of defense.
As part of the effort, the services were tasked with standing up four task forces:
- Leading Indicator Task Force — to identify and recommend metrics to use as leading indicators so the DoD can be more proactive and less reactive to hazards and mishaps, preventing accidents before they claim lives, destroy equipment and reduce readiness.
- Lessons Learned Task Force — to provide an implementation plan to proactively share and utilize lessons learned across the Defense Department.
- Mishap Classification Task Force — to review the current way mishaps are classified and create a better linkage to readiness indicators and mishap causes.
- Safety Data Reform Task Force — to provide an implementation plan to collect, report and analyze mishap information in addition to gain efficiencies across the Department by leveraging existing data sources and eliminating duplicative systems."
DoD has also shifted mishaps accounting to its personnel and readiness policy office and empowered that office to serve as the “principal enterprise safety official and senior adviser on safety matters, to include aviation, afloat, ground, motor vehicle and weapons.”
“The safety realignment will improve the department’s lethality when confronted with safety mishaps that have a negative impact on force readiness,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
Tara Copp is the Pentagon Bureau Chief for Military Times and author of the award-winning military nonfiction "The Warbird: Three Heroes. Two Wars. One Story."
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter at Defense News. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Before that, he covered U.S. Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for Air Force Times.