US Marines with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, secure their gear on an Amphibious Assault Vehicle prior to departure aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, off the coast of the Kingdom of Thailand, Feb. 16, 2018. US Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Robert Arellano, courtesy of DVIDS.
On Friday, the Marine Corps launched a third investigation into the July 30, 2020, sinking of an Assault Amphibious Vehicle, or AAV, which killed eight Marines and one Navy corpsman.
“The investigation will inquire into the formation of the 15th [Marine Expeditionary Unit]; training and material readiness impacting the formation of the 15th MEU; and higher headquarters oversight of the 15th MEU,” Capt. Andrew Wood, a Marine Corps Headquarters spokesman, told Coffee or Die Magazine.
Gen. Gary Thomas, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, appointed Lt. Gen. Carl Mundy to lead the investigation. Wood told Coffee or Die that Mundy would “serve as board president of the command investigation into the facts and circumstances surrounding the forming of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.” Wood added that Mundy was selected with “full faith and confidence based on his experience and background.”
Mundy is an experienced infantry officer who has commanded units at nearly every level of the Marine Corps’ chain of command. Since July 2018, Mundy has served as commander of Marine Corps Forces Central Command, located at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.
Mundy will offer a fresh set of eyes in his review of last year’s fatal AAV incident.
On the morning of July 30, 2020, Marines riding in AAVs from the 15th MEU “splashed” from the USS Somerset. The training mission that day was an amphibious raid on San Clemente Island, located off the coast of California. At the conclusion of the raid, multiple AAVs returning to the Somerset found themselves beset by mechanical issues. One, known as “track 5” in the report, began taking on water. A series of gradually escalating mechanical events, brought on by the water, culminated in the AAV’s sinking with the majority of the Marines still on board, roughly 30 minutes after leaving the shore.
The fatal sinking occurred during the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s first day of waterborne operations from the USS Somerset, the start of a training period that was set to last two weeks. The Navy and Marine Corps intended to use the exercise to practice amphibious operations — ship-to-shore operations are a pillar of the Marine Corps’ combat capabilities.
However, three of the amphibious vehicles faced serious mechanical issues during the exercise.
In March, the Marine Corps released the results of its second investigation into the incident. US Marine Corps Forces Pacific, or MARFORPAC, determined the accident was caused by a “combination of maintenance failures due to disregard of maintenance procedures, AAV crewmen not evacuating personnel when the situation clearly demanded they be evacuated, and improper training of embarked personnel on AAV safety procedures.”
According to the March report, many of the vehicles in operation on the day of the fatal accident were in “horrible” condition. Further, “the [Third Assault Amphibian] Battalion did not properly train or equip this AAV Platoon for a very difficult MEU training cycle and deployment.”
The investigation found that nearly all of the vehicles were previously inoperable, having spent almost a year in an “administrative deadline lot.”
Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, was more specific in assigning blame.
“Ultimately, this entire mishap could have been averted and lives saved if the vehicle commander had followed [standard operating procedures] and ordered the embarked personnel to take off their gear and evacuate the mishap AAV,” Heckl wrote in the accident report.
Some Marine veterans and active-duty personnel say it’s unfair to blame the vehicle commander for an incident that was likely caused by mechanical failures.
“The whole organization should have been a backstop from a maintenance standpoint,” Michael Manson, who served as a platoon commander from 2010 to 2013 in an Assault Amphibian Battalion, said. “It’s not just on the vehicle commander. There are responsibilities which go higher.”
The day after the fatal AAV incident, the Marine Corps suspended all waterborne operations and ordered inspections of the entire AAV fleet. As of April 2, the Assault Amphibian School at California’s Camp Pendleton is the only Marine Corps unit with authorization to conduct such waterborne operations. Wood said the school “has received a waiver for the purposes of military occupational specialty qualification.”
Wood added that additional waivers demonstrating “operational necessity” must be individually approved by a lieutenant general. The 15th MEU did not take any AAVs on its current deployment, he said.
“The goal is to ensure the Marine Corps is doing everything possible to prevent this type of mishap from happening again,” Wood told Coffee or Die, adding that it would be premature to forecast a date by which the investigation will be completed.
James Webb served as a US Marine infantryman from 2005 to 2010, completing a combat tour in Iraq. He’s worked as a freelance writer and photojournalist covering US troops in Afghanistan, and Webb spent more than two years in the US Senate as a military legislative assistant and as the personal representative of a member on the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
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