The US Military’s Legacy Vehicles are Vulnerable to Rollovers
The death of Spc. Vincent Sebastian Ibarria, this July in Afghanistan, is yet another tragic reminder of just how much can go wrong when military vehicles rollover. Little information has been released about this specific incident, but the broader set of data highlights the military’s legacy vehicles as being particularly vulnerable to rollover accidents.
Legacy vehicles refers to the military’s older kit, typically vehicles which have seen a decade or more in service. Keeping older equipment in service can be a more cost-effective and dependable way to deliver results on the battlefield in lieu of developing entirely new and untested technology. As the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. However, this sentiment only holds true if legacy vehicles are well maintained and modernized to keep pace with evolving technology.
The military’s priority should be to address safety concerns regarding its aging fleet of HMMWVs. Even with plans to gradually phase out the HMMWV with the new Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), the Army and Marine Corps will still be operating a larger fleet of HMMWVs than JLTVs by 2028, according to present plans.
The military have been aware of the HMMWV’s rollover susceptibility for several years. Between 2015 and 2019, 93 HMMWV rollover accidents left 10 service personnel dead and a further 122 injured. Prior to this, a significant number of HMMWV rollover accidents and fatalities were recorded during the heights of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
Data-driven and anecdotal evidence from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have established a strong link between the up-armored HMMWV variant and an increased risk of rolling over. During counterinsurgency operations in the Middle East HMMWVs were found to be vulnerable to IEDs and were retrofitted to better counter this threat. This gave troops more protection against enemy mines, but the top-heavy weight distribution destabilized the vehicle, especially in rough terrain. Approximately half of the Army’s HMMWVs are up armored, and those without additional safety retrofitting are especially susceptible to mishaps.
The technology already exists to significantly lessen the risk of vehicle rollovers. Some of the military’s older HMMWVs have already been retrofitted with rollover mitigation kits. These kits include additions like anti-lock braking systems (ABS) and electronic stability control systems. In fact, some of these additions have been made mandatory for civilian passenger vehicles since 2011 but have still not been rolled out to the entire fleet of HMMWVs.
Since rollover accidents are most prevalent during conditions of reduced visibility, depth perception technology also presents an opportunity to improve vehicle safety by providing better situational awareness. The use of display systems and cameras to improve depth perception for vehicle crews would be a beneficial addition to HMMWVs, as well as a multitude of other vehicles. It is often more difficult for the crews of heavier vehicles, like the LAV-25 or Assault Amphibious Vehicle (AAV), to see oncoming obstacles, especially under closed-hatch conditions. Any technology which could improve visibility from within these vehicles could play an important part in preventing accidental injuries and deaths.
Frustratingly, the slow uptake of technology to improve the safety of legacy vehicles is rooted in politics. The House recently scrapped plans presented by the Pentagon to procure funding to retrofit the entire HMMWV fleet with safety kits and instead opted to purchase newly built HMMWVs. The new HMMWVs, built in Indiana, are designed with new safety measures in mind, but this will still leave at least 4,400 of the older HMMWVs without the necessary retrofitting to better avoid rollovers.
Had the House instead chosen to grant the Pentagon the $93.75 million it requested, the entire fleet of legacy vehicles would have been retrofitted, which would also have been cheaper than buying the new vehicles. This means that by the time the JLTVs are adopted in serious numbers, the average legacy HMMVW still in service will be over 35 years old. This is a lot of time for something to go wrong in an old vehicle without the bare minimum of retrofitting.
Nevertheless, at least there are practicable steps which could be taken to reduce the risks associated with operating older vehicles. As we continue to invest in upping the lethality and effectiveness our troops’ equipment, we should also invest in their survivability and safety.
Written by Alexander Gale on behalf of Convergent3D
Spc. Vincent Sebastian Ibarria was laid to rest last month in Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery after he was killed on the 3rd July in a vehicle rollover accident in Afghanistan.
The exact details of Ibarria’s death have not yet been disclosed, but his death is the latest in a series of fatalities amongst service personnel caused by vehicle rollover accidents, which have become a growing concern for the military over the last two decades. Accidents of this type have occurred in training and on operations.
Ibarria was operating with the 10th Mountain Division in the Farah Province in Southwestern Afghanistan when the accident occurred. Farah’s rough terrain may have played a role in causing the accident, as approximately 46 percent of the region consists of mountainous terrain.
Alternatively, the vehicle Ibarria was travelling in may have faltered and flipped over on one of Afghanistan’s notoriously bad roads. According to a report by the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, just under half of Farah’s roads can sustain traffic year-round and the majority of roads are gravel or unpaved. The report is old but infrastructure in the region is unlikely to have improved significantly in the decade since, given the region’s high degree of insurgent activity and subsequent lack of investment.
Until the Department of Defence discloses the circumstances of the accident, it will be impossible to say exactly what led to this fatality and whether it was preventable. Nevertheless, it is a painful reminder that more must be done to prevent vehicle rollovers, which are the leading cause of military motor vehicle accidents.
Military vehicle rollovers, both in theatre and in training, tend to be caused by a combination of poor visibility and difficult terrain. Adopting technology which can enhance the vision and situational awareness of vehicle crews should be a priority to improve vehicle safety. Improvements would be especially welcome for top-heavy vehicles that are more prone to rolling over and would likewise be welcomed by units who tend to spend more time operating off-road.
The risks servicemen and women face cannot be eliminated entirely, but this should not deter the Department of Defense from striving to minimize the frequency of motor vehicle accidents.
Written by Alexander Gale on behalf of Covnergent3D
In the first quartile of FY2020, a total of five Army personnel were killed in three tactical vehicle rollovers. The year before, the Army lost 13 soldiers to rollover accidents. The Army are not the only service branch to suffer losses of this kind. Marine First Lt. Hugh Connor McDowell was killed in May 2019, when his light armored vehicle (LAV) rolled over into a ditch hidden by thick vegetation. Like the majority of recent rollover fatalities, McDowell was tragically killed during a training exercise. This recent spate of rollover fatalities begs the question, is this problem a new one?
Non-battle injuries and fatalities caused by motor vehicle accidents have been growing in statistical importance since about the mid-20th century. In part, this is because prevention and treatment of disease has reduced the relative threat which sickness poses to deployed forces. However, the increasing motorization and mechanization of the armed forces and uptake of vehicular combat has increased the odds that personnel will be involved in a vehicle accident during their careers.
Signs that more attention should be paid to military vehicle safety should have become apparent in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War. Between August 2, 1990 to February 28, 1991, transportation related injuries became the foremost cause of non-battle fatalities amongst US forces deployed during the war. 34 percent of the deaths which occurred outside of combat were attributed to motor vehicle accidents (MVAs) and 19 percent of non-battle injuries (NBIs) requiring hospitalization were also the result of MVAs. MVAs were the joint-leading cause of NBIs requiring hospital treatment alongside falls.
A report by the US General Accounting Office’s (GAO) National Security and International Affairs Division shed further light on vehicle accidents between 1988-1996. The GAO found that MVAs accounted for 42 percent of on-duty fatalities in non-aviation accidents, making them responsible for more on-duty deaths than any other type of accident in all the services except the Navy. More specifically, military vehicle accidents were also the leading cause of fatalities in training.
Unfortunately, the statistics prior to the turn of the century do not specify the type of vehicle accidents which took place. It is therefore impossible to determine whether the majority of injuries and fatalities were caused by rollovers, collisions, mechanical failures etc. However, they are useful in examining the broader trend of vehicle accidents in which rollovers are increasingly playing a significant part.
Military vehicle rollovers first began to feature in news headlines in the early 2000’s during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). According to Military Medicine Journal findings in 2006, MVAs were the third leading cause of NBIs requiring air medical evacuation in both Iraq and Afghanistan, echoing earlier trends in the Persian Gulf War. Concerns about MVAs in Iraq and Afghanistan coincided with the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) up-armoring program which ran between 2003-2005.
A study by the Naval Health Research Center conducted in 2010 found that rollovers were largely to blame for MVAs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Between 2004-2005, rollovers were the cause of 66 percent of MVA fatalities in Iraq. In both theatres of operation, 19 percent of personnel who experienced a rollover were injured as a result, and these injuries were more severe on average than those sustained during other types of MVAs such as collisions.
Military vehicle rollovers persisted as a problem in Iraq and Afghanistan, at first largely with the up-armored HMMWVs and then with the bulky MRAPs which were introduced in 2007 as a more suitable vehicle for counterinsurgency warfare. Yet, in the aftermath of major combat operations in the Middle East, US personnel are still losing their lives in similar accidents.
Although the context in which rollovers are now occurring has changed, many of the conditions present during rollovers in training are comparable to those present during deployment. In October last year, three soldiers were killed during a training exercise when their Bradley Fighting Vehicle (BFV) rolled off a bride and into a stream.
The October accident is comparable to incidents which took place during OIF and OEF. A 2007 study examined 52 incidents of vehicular drowning deaths which took place between 2003-2005 in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two findings stand out in particular; vehicular drowning deaths were almost always the result of a rollover and mostly happened at night. The three soldiers who died in October last year were training in the early morning when their vehicle rolled over at approximately 3:20 a.m. It therefore seems likely that the lowlight conditions impeded their ability to avoid hazards ahead, as was the case for many who were injured and killed years prior in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Of course, this is just one example; but going forward, the Department of Defense would benefit from a comprehensive review of the circumstances which lead to vehicle accidents. A wealth of data exists from Iraq and Afghanistan which could shed light on measures and technology which could be adopted to minimize injuries and fatalities resulting from vehicle rollovers. This will become especially important as US forces reorient training more towards peer-peer conflict and large-scale vehicle maneuver exercises become more frequent.
It’s 3:30 a.m. and your patrol is rumbling forward off-road at a steady pace. The column is silent, except for the low, constant hum of the vehicles crawling forward. The silence is punctured by a sudden crash. You briefly see the vehicle ahead of you flip over and roll into a ditch. At best, no one has been hurt and you’ll be sitting ducks until the convoy can get moving again. At worst, your colleagues have been pinned under the vehicle and have been seriously injured or killed.
An increase in fatalities caused by military vehicle rollovers last year and in the early months of 2020 have prompted U.S. military leadership to pay closer attention to the issue. Although most recent accidents have taken place during training, a growing trend of vehicle rollovers began to emerge amongst certain vehicle types in 2003 and persisted throughout Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). Identifying which military vehicles are prone to rolling over would pave the way for greater occupant safety in vehicles when deployed and in training.
Determining which vehicles are most prone to rolling over is not a straightforward task. For instance, in 2010, researchers from the Naval Health Research Center found that many records did not list the vehicle involved in an accident when gathering data for their report on noncombat motor vehicle accidents during OIF.
However, a combination of statistical and anecdotal data has made it clear which vehicles were most involved in rollover accidents at the height of OIF and OEF.
A 2017 study in the Military Medicine journal reveals that reports of rollover fatalities involving the High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) increased between 2003 and 2005. This timeframe coincides with the military’s HMMWV up-armoring program which made the vehicles more capable of protecting their occupants from IED blasts and small arms fire.
An unintended consequence of the up-armoring program was the transformation of the HMMWV from a relatively agile and maneuverable vehicle to that of a hulking and unwieldy beast. The threat posed by IEDs may have been reduced but now the rough terrain and poorly maintained roads of Iraq and Afghanistan had become a dangerous antagonist for troops attempting to negotiate steep inclines or unfamiliar routes.
A recent accident occurring in October 2019 serves as a painful reminder of the up-armored HMMWV’s susceptibilities to rolling over. Marine Pfc. Christian Bautista was killed when the M1151 HMMWV he occupied rolled over during a training exercise at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Centre in Bridgeport, California,
In 2007, U.S. forces adopted an alternative to the Frankenstein’s monster, which the up-armored HMMWV had become, with the newer Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles. With their V-shaped hulls and heavier armor, the MRAP was better suited to protecting troops from IEDs than the up-armored HMMWV. They were not, however, any better at traversing Iraq and Afghanistan’s uneven roads and terrain.
The vast majority of MRAPs adopted by U.S. forces in 2007 were based on earlier African designs. The first MRAPs deployed in the 1970s during the Rhodesian Bush War were predominately operated in the flat open terrain of the savanna. In contrast, the descendants of these early MRAPs were confronted with the steep inclines and uneven trails of Iraq and Afghanistan. This factor combined with the MRAP’s significant weight and high center of gravity has made it especially prone to rollovers.
Other vehicles, which are not inherently prone to rolling over due to their designs are nevertheless at an elevated risk of a rollover due to their role and usage. Last year, a LAV-25 and Polaris MRZR were both implicated in rollovers which led to training fatalities. The LAV-25 is used by the U.S. Marine Corps in an armored reconnaissance role, whereas the MRZR is specifically designed for off-road usage Consequently, both vehicles are frequently operated in terrain which may inhibit driver visibility or cause a loss of control, thus heightening the probability of a rollover.
Vehicles identified as being at a higher risk of accidents and rollovers should be the priority when military leadership are considering new technology, training and practices which may be implemented to improve vehicle safety.
In the opening years of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) it became increasingly clear that the well-worn and iconic High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) was not suited to the rigors of counterinsurgency combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. In order to counter the HMMWV’s inherent vulnerability to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) – frequently the weapon of choice for outgunned insurgents – the U.S. military adopted the bulkier Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles. The MRAP vehicles proved a more effective bulwark against IEDs but presented a new set of serious challenges for the personnel operating them, namely a heightened risk of rollover accidents and decreased mobility.
Before the MRAP was introduced in 2007, the military tried to modify the HMMWV itself with intention of making it more survivable as a combat vehicle against IEDs and other threats. Between August 2003 and April 2005, the US Army commissioned an up-armoring program for its HMMWVs. New HMMWVs were manufactured and deployed with additional armor, whereas the vehicles already in theatre were retrofitted with armor kits.
Unfortunately, the added weight of the vehicle armor destabilized the HMMWVs and altered their center of gravity, making them harder for drivers to control. The now-armored turret was especially troublesome because it made the vehicles top heavy and therefore more likely to roll over. If a rollover did occur, it was now much harder for troops to egress from the HMMWV due to additional weight of the doors from the bolted-on armor.
The over-encumbered up-armored HMMWVs were a far cry from the vehicles in their original form, which were maneuverable in off-road conditions and not especially prone to rollovers thanks to their light weight and wide wheelbase. Indeed, according to statistics from a 2017 Military Medicine study, a greater proportion of the more severe class A and class B HMMWV accidents between 1991-2013 involved the up-armored M1114 variant of the vehicle, at 35 percent.
In 2007, the US Department of Defense made its first moves to augment and replace the military’s HMMWVs with the MRAP. From this point, until production ended in 2012, over 12,000 MRAPs saw service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The MRAPS were designed with survivability in mind, especially against IEDs. The main improvement of the MRAP over the HMMWV is its V-shaped hull, which works by deflecting blasts away from the vehicle at acute angles. Many of the MRAPs also have increased passenger capacity.
As is often the case with technology, solving one problem led to another. The bulky armor of the MRAP, which protects its occupants against IEDs and small arms fire, makes it incredibly hefty and difficult to maneuver off-road. CAT II MRAPs can weigh anywhere between 65,000 and 75,000 pounds, making them even more unwieldy than the up-armored HMMWVs. This can make driving an MRAP up a relatively steep incline an uncomfortable task.
A report by the US Marine Corps Center in June 2010, brought several issues regarding the MRAP to attention. The report highlighted incidents of MRAPs rolling over after poorly constructed bridges and roads had given way under the weight of the vehicle. Moreover, roads in Iraq and Afghanistan are often characterized by steep crowns which curve down into waterways and pose an additional threat of drowning if occupants are unable to escape a flipped vehicle. The report found that almost 60 percent of MRAP accidents between November 7, 2007 and June 8, 2008 were due to rollovers caused by weak bridges, bad roads, or driver error.
With major combat operations drawing to a close in the Middle East, the question remains as to whether the military has learned and implemented lessons regarding vehicle safety. The Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) and M-ATV are set to take over most of the aging HMMWV’s roles. Both vehicles are designed by Oshkosh and are intended to provide the level of protection granted by an MRAP but with greater maneuverability.
The JLTV and M-ATV both benefit from the TAK-4 independent suspension, originally used on the MTVR, which grants them greater potential to be used off-road. The new vehicles are capable of 70 percent of travel being off-road, compared to the HMMWV which was designed for 30 percent off-road travel. Other features, like electronic stability control (ESC) and front and rear display cameras may help prevent rollover accidents.
Despite significant improvements, an incident in which a JLTV rolled over in training last year at Fort Stewart’s tank trails is a reminder that no vehicle is infallible. Fortunately, no one was injured, but the military are looking for ways to improve visibility for crew members of the JLTV. Mitigating risks in new vehicles as the HMMWV is gradually phased out will require consistent testing, training and innovation.
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.
Article Written by Alex Gale on behalf of Convergent3D
For armed forces personnel, operating wheeled and tracked vehicles is a daily and often mundane reality of military life, but it can also be a dangerous one. Statistics from the Defense Casualty Analysis System (DCAS) indicate that between 2006-2018, 31.9 % of all active-duty military deaths were caused by accidents. A significant number of these deaths involved vehicles and in particular, vehicle rollovers.
According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, over a 12-year period approximately 16 % of all Non-Overseas Contingency Operation (non-OCO) fatalities involved vehicles. More broadly, accidents between 2006-2018 have accounted for 4,827 deaths during non-OCO’s.
Fatalities caused by vehicle rollovers and accidents are not a uniquely American problem. NATO allies face similar risks. For example, an MoD report reveals that in 2018, 16 % of fatalities amongst British regular armed forces personnel were caused by “land transport accidents”.
Rollovers are more likely to occur when vehicles are passing through rough terrain or being driven at night. During operations and in training, vehicles will often be driven off road under the cover of darkness, but the lack of visibility makes it harder for drivers to spot oncoming hazards.
Concerns were raised in the US last year that the high number of military vehicle accidents were being exacerbated by a shortage of equipment and insufficient training. Some spare parts are also in short supply. Former Senate Budget Committee staffer Rick Berger suggested that the time troops spend maintaining old vehicles has detracted from crucial time spent training, contributing further to the likelihood of accidents.
In 2018, the House Armed Services Committee voiced similar fears and pointed out that some of the Marine Corps vehicles are decades old, such as the Assault Amphibious Vehicle (AAV), which has been in service since 1972 and the Light Armored Vehicle (LAV) which has seen service since 1983.
A broad range of vehicles used by the military are susceptible to rolling over. In May last year, a light armored vehicle rolled over during a training exercise in Camp Pendleton, killing one marine and injuring six others. Another incident, one month prior, tragically led to the death of Sgt. Joshua Braica when his Polaris MRZR rolled over during training.
In June 2019, Guard Staff Sgt. David W. Gallagher was killed, and three others injured when a tank experienced a rollover during training in Fort Irwin, California.
This year in March, marine Cpl. Eloiza Zavala was killed when a 7-ton Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement (MTVR) rolled over during an overseas training exercise in the United Arab Emirates. Two other marines were injured in the incident, one seriously. All three marines were motor vehicle operators.
Rollovers are also hazardous during operations. British Pathfinder Capt. David Blakeley, who barely survived an incident in which his Land Rover flipped over during an operation in Iraq, wrote of his ordeal: “I passed out with the impact. I came to sometime later with the weight of the wagon on top of me, and in total agony.” His rescue was successful, despite challenges posed by low visibility and the prospect of enemy artillery fire.
Others have not been so lucky. US Army reservist Spc. Antonio I was killed in January 2020 when his vehicle rolled over during a route-clearing operation in Syria.
Stories like these are all too common. Risk is an expected aspect of military service, but service personnel should not be losing their lives in preventable vehicle accidents, especially during training. The families of fatally injured personnel have successfully lobbied Congress to pay closer attention to the issue.
Cary Russell, the director of the defense capabilities and management team at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has said that his team is now examining military-wide practices and policies which could prevent future rollovers and accidents. They will also be paying close attention to the statistics and collection of relevant data. Previously, the GAO has investigated the comparable issue of military aviation accidents.
Following a number of rollover incidents in the summer of 2019, Command Sgt. Maj Michael Grinston highlighted the issue, saying: “Army motor vehicle mishaps are the number one killer of on-duty soldiers.” CSM Grinston cited training as one of the causes and stated that, “inadequate unit driver training programs contribute to 68 % of these mishaps”.
Individually, every fatality caused by military vehicle rollovers is a tremendous tragedy for the friends and family of the deceased service member. Collectively, the armed forces are needlessly losing talented personnel they have invested significant time and resources on. Hopefully these losses of life will spur the forces to make greater efforts in finding technical and doctrinal solutions which can prevent future accidents from claiming lives.
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.
Tactical Vehicle Rollover Accidents are becoming an increasingly visible risk to US Soldiers and Marines. These incidents are usually reported when there is the addition of a tragedy. These accidents make the news because of the serious injury or death of a servicemember. In these cases many of the costs are very obvious. The loss of life resulting in a grieving family, and a military unit stunned to silence from the death of a brother or sister, peer, and friend. In these incidents, we focus on that loss. The total cost, however, reaches deeper than those visible and emotional losses. Not every vehicle accident results in loss of life, but the costs associated with unit readiness, maneuver capability, training ability, and equipment repair mount very quickly.
According to Defense Industry Daily, based on awarded contracts, MaxxPro’s price per base vehicle is around $520,000 – $550,000. The vehicles must then be fitted with electronics, IED jammers, and other equipment. That can add hundreds of thousands of dollars to that base price, before they’re sent to the front lines. As a leader responsible for 18 MRAP Series Vehicles and four MaxxPro Dash ISS vehicles, it isn’t uncommon for a single company commander to have responsibility for $20 Million in vehicles. In these financial terms, every military vehicle accident is much closer to destroying a Bugatti Veyron (with prices over $1 million) than it is to a fender bender in a Camry.
Each Military Vehicle Accident where there is damage to equipment or any injury to a servicemember is investigated fully. That requires assignment of an Investigating Officer who then gathers evidence, speaks to those involved, documents all findings in accordance with military regulations and procedures, and presents findings to the Commanding Officer. The command level that addresses these incidents is usually at the Battalion or Brigade level for equipment loss, and the Division or higher level (General Officers in Command) for incidents that involve loss of life or serious injury. In the military it is difficult to quantify the cost of man hours. All active duty military personnel are salaried, and the hours worked are not tracked with any consistency. The total time spent by those investigating these accidents, reporting findings, and making command decisions, however, is at the cost of unit effectiveness, readiness, and/or operational and training efficiency.
In a combat environment, a vehicle rollover incident causes delays to operations, requires the investigating officer to travel to additional forward operating bases and combat outposts, and takes all servicemembers involved in the investigation away from primary duties. Each investigation brings with it additional risk and exposure in a combat environment and operational risk from servicemembers and units not on patrol or performing primary duties.
These equipment and man hour costs mount very quickly when there is serious or catastrophic damage to a vehicle in a rollover. When a servicemember is killed in the incident, the fiscal cost skyrockets. The human cost is very visible and felt by anyone exposed to the visuals of a grieving family, military unit, and community. The financial cost of a servicemember killed is played out through Servicemembers Group Life Insurance (SGLI), the Military Family Death Gratuity, 180 days of family housing after the incident, the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, Uniformed Services Survivor Benefit Plan, and continued benefits the family of the deceased receives. These necessary costs to support the families of services members after an incident like this can easily exceed $1 Million per service member. SGLI pays a max of $400,000 or $800,000 if the servicemember dies in combat in life insurance payouts. According to defense.gov the death gratuity program provides for a special tax-free payment of $100,000 to eligible survivors of members of the Armed Forces, who die while on active duty or while serving in certain reserve statuses. The death gratuity is the same regardless of the cause of death.
With vehicles valued at $500,000 to $1.5 million and death benefits to the families of servicemembers killed valued at $500,000 to $1 million, each Military Tactical Vehicle Rollover carries with it remarkable fiscal cost. We highlight this not to diminish the focus on the human cost, but because government department and agency decision-making always has a financial factor at play. These incidents are preventable with technology that is currently available, including that offered by Convergent3D. Each vehicle rollover prevented avoids the tragic human cost as well as millions of dollars in unnecessary costs to taxpayers.
Preventing Military Vehicle Rollovers
A vehicle rollover in Syria on January 25th, 2020 that killed a United States Army Reserve soldier is yet another reminder of the danger and frequency of this type of accident that the military experiences so often. Specialist Antonio Moore, 22, from Wilmington, NC, died in Syria when his vehicle rolled over during a route clearance operation. He was a member of the 363rd Engineer Battalion.
In 2019 at least 15 Soldiers and Marines were killed in vehicle training accidents. These accidents are often the result of operating heavy military vehicles on uneven terrain at night. That was the case for the three soldiers killed early in the morning October 20th, 2019 when their vehicle fell from a bridge and landed upside down in water below. Sergeant First Class Bryan Jenkins, Corporal Thomas Walker, and Private First Class Antonio Garcia belonged to 1st Armored Brigade and were training for the unit’s scheduled rotation to the Army’s National Training Center in California.
When Soldiers and Marines are operating military vehicles at night on uneven terrain there are obvious risks. Driving an uparmored wheeled military vehicle such as the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) MAXXPRO is very different than driving a civilian vehicle on the road. The military vehicle requires licensing and expertise to operate as well as a truck commander in the passenger seat to issue maneuver commands and provide additional observation around the vehicle for obstacles, threats, and hazards. The windshield and side windows on the MRAP series of vehicles are typically made from a thick laminated ballistic glass and have much less visibility than the average civilian car.
The US Army and Marine Corps have long implemented safety training in the event of a vehicle rollover. In most cases this training consists of a HMMWV cab on a frame that slowly turns the cab and occupants upside down in a controlled environment. This training allows servicemembers to experience the disorientation of the inverted vehicle and work on techniques for exiting the vehicle safely. This exercise also shows the trainees how the vehicle personnel restraint systems and personal protective equipment works. The training, however, may not be addressing the real risks.
In the cases mentioned at the beginning of this article as well as in others in 2019, the Soldiers and Marines killed in each accident died on impact or shortly afterwards. The conditions of each rollover incident vary, but the training mentioned above assumes that the cab of the vehicle remains intact throughout the rollover. As reported by the Army Times, “Cadet Christopher J. Morgan, a member of the Class of 2020, died from his injuries after a vehicle rolled over on its way to field exercises at the U.S. Military Academy’s training area. Morgan died at the scene of the accident.” In another notable rollover incident from 2019, Conor McDowell, a 2017 graduate of The Citadel, died instantly when his vehicle rolled over in rough terrain during tactical maneuvers at Camp Pendleton, California. So many of these incidents indicate that the only way to prevent these deaths is to prevent the rollover in the first place.
The primary issue identified in many of these rollover cases is the visibility in uneven terrain at night. The concern here is that obstacles and hazards blend in with background images with the current vehicle night driver assist. Vehicles in the MRAP category have full motion video screens that display infrared images from sensors in various locations on the vehicle. The video displays and quality are notorious for causing motion sickness and requiring drivers to change positions in shifts while on patrol to prevent sickness. These camera and display systems do not allow correct depth perception and detail. At Convergent3D we believe there is a solution to these system shortfalls. While there are many factors in military vehicle rollovers, we look to improve on what we see as the primary concern, depth perception and visibility when driving on uneven terrain at night. The C3D Driver’s Vision Enhancer (DVE) solution allows drivers that much needed increased situational awareness.
Convergent3D provides one solution for a primary concern in military vehicle rollovers, but there are many factors at play in these tragedies. Training deaths have outnumbered combat deaths four to one in recent years and vehicle rollovers account for enough of these deaths to warrant active work on solutions. Additional concerns include range surveys ahead of training to identify possible obstacles and dangers, and vehicle maintenance after many years of hard use overseas. These concerns were major factors in the death of Conor McDowell (mentioned above). As information is made public after each of these events, especially those that occur in training, it is clear that there are more preventative measures available.