WASHINGTON — So far, 31 American soldiers have been killed in accidents during Operation Desert Shield in the Persian Gulf. Is this too many? How should the accidental injury and fatality rates be interpreted? The media, faced with a lull in military action, has mistakenly transformed the gulf rates into an issue.
In August, a number of Army soldiers were seriously injured when their Jeep-like High-Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicle overturned in the desert sands. In September, a Marine Corps CH-53 Super Stallion helicopter suffered a mechanical failure while idling on the runway, causing it to overturn and burn. A number of accidents have involved low-level flying, some at night. All services have had their share of misfortune: Air Force, 6 incidents; Army, 2; Marine Corps, 2, and Navy, 1.
Still, is the accident rate in the gulf excessive, as the media seem to be suggesting? And what about the design, engineering and production of the equipment in use in the gulf? Is it seriously flawed and thus the cause of the accidents, as some in the media have argued?
In light of past experience, the U.S. military's performance is well within the bounds of expectation, considering the tempo of required combat training in a particularly harsh environment. And there is no evidence to tie the equipment deployed in the gulf to the reported accidents. Although equipment failure is frequently the cause of accidents, other factors include poor maintenance, operator error, physical fatigue and failure to follow proper procedures. In most investigations of accidents, it is not easy to isolate the cause.
Using military historian Trevor Dupuy's calculations of the average rate of non-combat casualties, the 200,000-strong Middle East force should have sustained about 400 casualties by now. This rate has been relatively constant for all military forces of all nations since the 19th Century. The American experience regarding non-combat accidents during World War II, Korea and Vietnam, according to Dupuy, was not much different.
While any death or injury is regrettable, the U.S. Central Command's record in the gulf so far is thus exemplary. Compare a similarly large military exercise in Europe in 1986 that involved 200,000 American soldiers for about a month. In the operation, accident, fatality and injury rates were closer to Dupuy's estimates than to those in Desert Shield.
But historical comparisons are useful only up to a point, and important questions have been raised about the Persian Gulf accidents. Some armchair strategists, for example, have challenged the prudence of flying aircraft low and fast at night. This argument, however, begs the question of how to train helicopter and fighter crews to contend with the conditions under which they will actually fly combat missions.
The alternative of flying exclusively in broad daylight, at altitudes and speeds easily targetable by enemy anti-aircraft weapons and even small-arms fire, is obviously unacceptable. The responsibility of the gulf military commanders is to exploit every advantage they can from their superior technology--and, right now, U.S. forces own the night. Many lives will be saved by maintaining the required level of preparedness to strike Iraqi forces in darkness. It should be recalled that all hits by enemy fire on U.S. helicopters in Panama occurred during daylight.
In an important sense, every accident is avoidable. Military commanders bear the sole burden of responsibility and accountability not only for accomplishing their mission, but also for the safety, health and welfare of the U.S. citizens entrusted to their command. For every mishap that occurs in their units, military leaders must identify, if possible, the act or omission that caused the accident and take firm action to ensure that those conditions do not recur.
There is an unwritten understanding among that very small circle of officers selected for command that "good leaders have low accident rates." This means that if you want to keep your command when you have a spate of accidents, you had better do something to get your rate down. This is apparently what happened in 1989 when the U.S. Navy's response to a spate of accidents at sea was to shut down all fleet operations for 48 hours in order to review safety procedures. The recent 12-hour suspension of operations by U.S. air forces in the Persian Gulf was similarly motivated.