ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.
Members of the House Armed Services Committee announced Tuesday that they would be holding a hearing next month at which Navy and Marine Corps leaders will be questioned about just how ready U.S. forces in the Pacific are for combat.
The announcement comes a month after a ProPublica investigation into a midair crash between two Marine Corps aircraft during a training exercise off the coast of Japan that killed six Marines.
The Marine Corps investigation into the December 2018 tragedy that was released to the public largely blamed the squadron itself, painting the Marines as reckless aviators who flouted safety protocols.
But ProPublica revealed, through internal documents withheld from the public, that the squadron involved in the deadly accident had for months warned senior leaders that it was dangerously undertrained, undermanned and short of functioning aircraft.
Fighter Attack Squadron 242’s records showed its pilots were not capable of completing most of their basic missions if war broke out. They were knowingly given faulty equipment by the Marine Corps that possibly contributed to the death toll, and they were sent out on the dangerous mission over the sea without proper notifications having been made for a search-and-rescue operation to be at the ready in the event of an accident.
A second, secret investigation placed blame on senior leaders — and made alarming assessments about how unprepared the Marine Corps forces in the Pacific were.
The families of the dead Marines, five who died in a refueling tanker and another who died after floating hurt and undiscovered for more than nine hours in the Pacific, were never given the conclusions of the secret investigation.
The problems in the Marine Corps’ aviation forces mirror those ProPublica found in the Navy’s surface fleet. In 2017, two Navy destroyers were involved in fatal accidents months apart, and the Navy was quick to portray them as largely the result of negligence by sailors on the two ships. ProPublica’s reconstructions of the accidents, however, showed that uniformed and civilian Navy leaders at the highest levels had been alerted for years that the sailors and ships of the 7th Fleet were in crisis: undertrained, overtaxed and starved of the time and parts required to operate the country’s most versatile warships.
The House Armed Services Committee hearing, scheduled for Feb. 5, will include Vice Adm. Richard Brown, commander of naval surface forces, and Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, deputy commandant for Marine Corps aviation.
In the last month, the Marine Corps has announced plans to improve its forces in the Pacific.
Gen. David H. Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, distributed a memo encouraging his commanders to identify the “highest quality” Marines “for duty in the Pacific.”
“In the coming years,” Berger wrote, “I need each of you to make this a point of emphasis.”
The Marine Corps also announced that it would be equipping squadrons this year with water-activated strobe lights that would help search-and-rescue forces locate aviators who eject over the sea. ProPublica found that the location beacons issued to the aviators involved in the 2018 crash malfunctioned in the water, delaying rescue. Documents showed the Marine Corps knew the beacons were faulty but failed to replace them.
A Marine Corps spokesperson said distributing that new equipment has been in the works for years.
An internal Marine Corps memo about ProPublica’s investigation into the crash seemed to indicate that the problems exposed in the article were more widespread.
“Many of the concerns expressed in the article mirror those expressed internally by other Marine aviation units,” the memo stated.
A Marine Corps spokesperson told ProPublica that that assessment “was not based on any internal interviews or formal command assessments” but rather “an assessment of open-source social media comments following the release of the ProPublica article.”