An investigation into the July sinking of a Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicle that killed nine troops uncovered a series of troubling shortfalls across the chain of command -- a revelation that comes at the same time the service is returning to more ship-based operations.
The problems, which spanned mechanical, training and leadership failures, raise serious questions about whether the Marine Corps and its equipment is ready for more operations at sea.
Sixteen Marines inside an AAV fought for their lives after water seeped into their 35-year-old vehicle during a training exercise off California's coast. The transmission, generator, pumps, emergency lighting and other systems inside the vehicle all malfunctioned; the investigation revealed that it never should have been in the water.
The crew, infantrymen and Navy corpsman inside also lacked the needed training to escape the slow-sinking tracked vehicle that carries Marines to and from shore. The crisis was compounded by the fact that, against Navy and Marine Corps regulation, the AAVs were in the water without a safety boat present that might have helped save lives.
The Marines were also more experienced operating the vehicle ashore rather than at sea -- something not uncommon for a service that has focused on land-based missions since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"The land is much more forgiving than the sea," a senior Marine leader who previously commanded a division said this week.
The Marine Corps is revising four servicewide orders in response to the findings of the investigation into the July 30 tragedy, the deadliest AAV training accident in the service's history. Those include changes to policies on Marine expeditionary unit operations and how units prepare to deploy.
The Marines were preparing to deploy with a Marine expeditionary unit, or MEU, when their vehicle sank. The investigation found that most of the AAVs that were assigned to the MEU were inoperable before they joined the unit, and their maintenance wasn't prioritized once they arrived.
The orders, the senior Marine leader said, will be rewritten to incorporate the findings of the safety and the command investigations into the fatal accident. The command investigation was released this week. The safety investigation, officials said, won't be released publicly.
The goal, according to the senior leader, is to "tighten those orders up to make sure that we learn from this accident, and we don't repeat some of the same mistakes."
The Marine Corps is in the process of inspecting its entire fleet of AAVs. Those inspections, which involve more than 800 vehicles and include water checks to spot leaking parts, remain ongoing, and water operations for AAVs have been paused since last summer.
The Marine Corps has also created a mishap library so junior leaders can readily access lessons learned from past accidents. The service also wants to implement new reporting tools, so Marines anonymously can report hazards they're spotting in their units and squadrons to safety officers and commanders, a Marine safety expert said.
Marines' amphibious missions are only likely to get more complex as the service reorients and returns to its roots in naval operations. Commandant Gen. David Berger wrote at length in his 10-year plan for the Marine Corps about expeditionary advanced-base operations in contested littoral environments that could leave small teams dispersed across vast distances. He has described sending Marines onto beaches in big teams from traditional amphibious warships or onto islands from smaller new vessels, carrying just dozens of leathernecks, that can pull right up onto the sand.
Amphibious operations, Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, head of Marine Corps Forces Pacific wrote in a letter accompanying the investigation into the deadly July accident, "are at the very center of the storied history and promising future of the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Navy."
"It is vitally important for Marines and sailors to participate in realistic training like the exercise in which this mishap occurred," Rudder added.
Still, officials said this week, policies and procedures must be followed to mitigate risks associated with those missions. What happened in July, the safety expert said, was "not what right looks like on the most basic level."
"We are extremely good at managing risk when we are in a tactical mode and in a tactical mindset," he said. "I think one of the things revealed [in the investigation] ... is we need to maintain that level of discipline and focus. We can't relax and go into an administrative mindset and wind up not accounting for a situation where significant hazards are starting to accumulate."
Even after 20 years of focusing largely on land-based operations, there's still a slice of the Marine Corps that has continued to experience amphibious operations.
"But that slice is not large enough; that depth of experience is not deep enough," another senior Marine leader, who previously commanded a MEU, said this week. "We've got some work to do going forward to make sure that we can do expeditionary advanced-base operations."