Article Written by Alex Gale on behalf of Convergent3D

As US forces look increasingly set to withdraw from Overseas Contingency Operations (OCOs), the balance between fatalities and injuries suffered in combat versus in training is beginning to shift with greater emphasis on the latter. 

The Trump Administration’s deal with the Taliban has set the stage for a complete withdrawal of US personnel in Afghanistan after nearly two decades of fighting.  Similarly, only about 5,200 personnel remain in Iraq, a small number compared to the roughly 168,000 troops stationed in the country during the 2007 surge.  For most troops now, the greatest risks they will face will be in training.  

A recent report by the Congressional Research Service reveals that more US service personnel are killed in training than on the front lines.  In the period between 2006-2018, 31.9% of active duty military fatalities occurred because of accidents, whereas 16.3% were killed in action.  Of those deaths, 73% occurred in circumstances unrelated to war.  US personnel are posted all over the world, but the majority of those killed between 2006-2018 have died on US soil, at 93%. 

Accidental deaths are problematic for all the services.  Last year, the Army alone, reported that 20 soldiers had been killed in training alongside a further 70 who had been seriously injured.  This was a slight increase on the year before, in which 18 died and 66 were injured.  Accidents also contributed to the $362 million the Army lost as a result of damaged or lost equipment in non-combat related circumstances.

For soldiers and marines in particular, one of the most significantly reoccurring accidents in training is that of vehicles rolling over.  A number of cases in recent years has highlighted the risks to personnel of vehicle rollovers, especially in rough terrain or in situations where visibility is limited.

Among the most recent cases was one in March this year, in which 20-year-old Marine Cpl. Eloiza Zavala was killed when the Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement she was in rolled over during a training exercise in the United Arab Emirates.  Two others were injured in the incident.

Rollovers are not isolated to a single vehicle type.  In October 2019, three soldiers lost their lives when their armored vehicle rolled over during training at Fort Steward in Georgia.  The vehicle rolled over into water at approximately 3:20 a.m., suggesting that difficult terrain and low-light conditions may have played a part in the accident.  Three other soldiers were injured in the incident but survived the ordeal.

The persistent rate of training fatalities comes at a time of changing focus for the US armed forces.  For about two decades, the US has been focused on counterinsurgency and asymmetrical warfare, but the 2018 National Defense Strategy has shifted attention back to conventional peer-peer based conflict.  Training has shifted too, to reflect this change.  Troops are practicing maneuvers in heavier formations suitable for large-scale ground combat.

During a House Armed Services Committee hearing on March 3, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville commented on the issue, saying: “I’m very concerned about some of the training exercises we had where we’re starting to have vehicles roll-over and people not wearing seat-belts — and we lost some soldiers very tragically,” 

McConville discussed the Army’s reacquaintance with large-scale maneuvers and conventional warfighting as a challenge faced in training in addition to the momentous task of instructing the Army’s annual intake of 130,000 new soldiers on crucial capabilities, such as driving their vehicles. 

McConville also pointed out that, “All of sudden you have armored vehicles moving in very difficult terrain.” Indeed, difficult terrain seems to be a contributor to several accidents.  For example, Marine 1st Lt. Conor McDowell was tragically killed when his Light Armored Vehicle (LAV) rolled into a ditch during a training exercise at Camp Pendleton, California in May last year.  The thick vegetation prevented the driver from seeing the oncoming danger and the vehicle rolled over.

Providing the frequency of combat operations continues to fall, it is inevitable that the number of service personnel killed in training will remain higher than those killed in action.  However, serious efforts should be made to reduce fatalities in training.

The armed forces may look to adjust training and operating procedures to promote greater safety.  Equally, there are incentives for the private sector to invest in developing technologies which can improve vehicle safety for personnel. 

Traditionally, the focus of crew survivability has been on preventing the enemy from carrying out a successful attack.  For instance, armor plating can offset the damage of a rocket propelled grenade.  Increasingly however, there is a need to address less obvious enemies, such as impaired visibility and rough terrain.  Innovations which help troops deal with these adversaries should become a priority.