Unnecessary weapons push safety aside

Freedom Editorial

This nation’s families long have sent sons and daughters into the military. They need to know that — given the inherent dangers of many military occupations, especially during wartime — the armed forces are taking adequate safety precautions, starting with day-to-day activities.

A five-month Detroit News investigation, detailed in a series this past week, discovered military vehicles too often are unsafe and cause accidents that sometimes are fatal.
“Outdated designs, a lack of safety features and poor training are contributing to the unnecessary deaths of U.S. soldiers in military vehicles,” the News reported. “With increased mobilization of troops for the Iraq war, the Army had its worst accident record in a decade last year: 833 crashes, 50 deaths and 223 injuries.

“Accidental deaths, including accidents in military vehicles, are such a problem, both in war and peacetime, that the Pentagon launched a major initiative to cut the number in half by 2005. Military vehicle accidents account for about 19 percent of all military accidents.”

The list of casualties includes a Muleshoe native. Marine Pfc. Chad Bales was killed in a non-combat accident in Iraq on April 3 when his convoy smashed into another during a sandstorm.

Certainly, we realize that military actions are inherently more dangerous than equivalent civilian actions. Although obviously true in wartime, that’s also true during peacetime maneuvers and training. But the News uncovered many inherent — and correctable — causes of vehicle injuries. And it also is somewhat hypocritical that a federal government which stringently regulates civilian vehicles through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration doesn’t follow its own regulations.

Some of the News findings:
• Over the past 10 years, 8,200 accidents in Army vehicles killed nearly 250 soldiers and injured 2,600, costing $223 million.

• “Military vehicles sometimes lag years behind in safety features afforded regular civilian drivers.”

• Even when the Army decides to make aging vehicles safer, “it takes years to do so, and the Army has a hard time keeping track of which vehicles get fixed.”

A lot of these are bureaucratic problems that can be fixed through better management and training. Given that the military budget now is more than $400 billion (and more for the war in Iraq), there is plenty of money to provide safer vehicles and safety training for the troops.

The Pentagon could get the money by canceling expensive, unneeded weapons systems, such as the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor air transport, which has been plagued by crashes. The cost of the “V-22 Albatross,” as critics dub it, has skyrocketed to $115 million for just one and $1.76 billion for whole program in the proposed fiscal 2005 budget. Canceling the program would free that money to buy a lot of newer, safer trucks and Humvees.

Indeed, what’s needed is a tough look at other dubious weapons programs, such as the F/A-22 fighter, costing $4.7 billion for fiscal 2005, and the “Virginia”-class attack submarine ($2.6 billion).

The News quoted a statement from earlier this year by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker: “We cannot be risk-averse; however, our soldiers are our most valuable combat assets. Therefore, reducing preventable losses … is fundamental to protecting our combat readiness.”

Members of Congress should work to pass legislation that would advance the safety of our troops and pay for it by canceling unneeded weapons systems.