Article Written by Alex Gale on behalf of Convergent3D

Imagine this scenario.  You’re the vehicle commander in an armored reconnaissance vehicle and today you have been tasked with leading your team during another training exercise.  It’s early morning and the sun hasn’t yet risen.  Visibility is poor, but you have opted for an off-road route to minimize the chances of detection by the enemy.  The ground is uneven and steep, and the thick vegetation has significantly hindered your visibility.  As a result, your vehicle crawls ahead at an excruciatingly slow speed.  Despite your best efforts, you don’t see the ditch ahead of you.  The call goes out but the vehicle slides into the ditch and rolls over.  You’re utterly disorientated as you turn and begin to scan the interior of the vehicle for casualties.

Combat fatalities amongst service personnel feature prominently in the public’s imagination, but less attention is paid to injuries and deaths caused by training.  During the 2019 fiscal year, there were 14 deaths in the Army involving vehicles, eight of which were caused by vehicles rolling over.  Examining the statistics is important, but analyzing individual cases is also crucial to determine reoccurring causes of these incidents.  A reoccurring theme in many such accidents is rough terrain and poor visibility.

On June 6, last year, West Point Cadet Christopher J. Morgan was killed during a rollover incident which happened during training.  19 other cadets and two soldiers suffered non-life-threatening injuries, including a broken arm and a facial abrasion.  Presently, a detailed report of the accident has not yet been made public, but a staff sergeant onboard the vehicle is facing a court martial for involuntary manslaughter and several other charges.

Of the details available about the accident, there are some clues which fit the broader pattern of military vehicle rollovers.  Two soldiers were transporting 19 cadets at approximately 6:45 in the morning in a M1085 MTV long wheelbase cargo truck.  The cadets were en route to a land navigation training exercise when the vehicle rolled over near Camp Natural Bridge, roughly eight miles from the main West Point Campus.

In a press conference following the accident, Lt. General Darryl William said that, “it is not common for these vehicles to turn over” but pointed out the rough hilly terrain and the hazards it poses to drivers.

On May 9, 2019, another rollover incident claimed the life of Marine 1st Lt. Conor McDowell during training at Camp Pendleton, California.  Prior to the accident, McDowell and his light armored vehicle (LAV) platoon were tasked with conducting reconnaissance of Canyon Road as part of a route reconnaissance exercise.  A division sized movement was expected to follow after the LAV platoon’s recon of the area.

McDowell ordered his platoon to move off road and use the thick vegetation to screen their movement.  This was done according to sound military rationale.  Roads offer little concealment and the vehicles can kick up dust signatures which are easily spotted by the opposing force.  Moreover, insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq have left roads riddled with IEDs, so soldiers and marines have adapted to take less obvious routes where possible.

Unfortunately, the near six-foot tall grass which provided ideal concealment also made it harder for the driver to see clearly ahead.  The LAV crew took care to drive extremely slowly, but the driver could still see barely five feet ahead and the vehicle rolled into a 15-foot washout and landed upside down.  McDowell reportedly spent the final moments of his life warning his fellow marines of the impending rollover.  A command investigation concluded that the accident was caused by a “terrain feature that became too late to avoid”.

Going forward, it may be difficult for the military to find solutions which prevent these accidents.  Operating in hostile terrain is often a necessity and personnel need exposure to realistic conditions in training.  Likewise, on operations and in training driving with impaired vision, caused either by low-light conditions or obstructing terrain, is frequently unavoidable.  Consequently, solutions are likely to stem from new technologies which permit greater visibility in adverse conditions and greater onboard safety in the event of an accident.  The military may also adopt new training methods and standard operating procedures which seek to maximize safety.  However, significant changes to training conditions and route selection during operations are less likely to occur, given the nature of risks deemed acceptable within a military context.