WASHINGTON — Senior Republican leaders pinned the spate of recent fatal Navy accidents on military budget cuts during a series of Senate floor speeches on Thursday.
“Ten sailors just died aboard the USS John S. McCain,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz. “They died because that ship was not ready and not trained and not equipped and not capable of doing its job because they didn’t have enough funding. Let’s get our priorities straight.”
The comments came as senators debated the annual defense authorization bill, which outlines funding priorities and policies for the upcoming fiscal year. McCain was arguing in favor of cuts to medical research in the military budget when he invoked the dead sailors.
“What you’re doing is you’re taking away from the men and women serving in the military what they need to defend this nation,” he said. “We now have many more accidents due to the lack of readiness and training and maintenance that we do in combat.”
That message of funding cuts endangering military lives has been repeated throughout the defense bill debate this week, and has become a talking point on among House lawmakers in their appropriations battles.
Navy officials have not formally released the causes of two high-profile recent accidents: A June collision between the USS Fitzgerald and a commercial ship that killed seven sailors and an August collision the USS McCain and a commercial ship that killed 10 others.
A recent Government Accountability Office found widespread problems with ship training and certification programs, which may have contributed to the accidents. Naval officials testified before the House Armed Services Committee earlier this month that funding uncertainty has lead to training and planning complications.
Following McCain’s comments on Thursday, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican — Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas — echoed the same sentiments that smaller than expected defense budgets were producing harmful effects for the force.
“We need to remember how they spell out in the real world, how they affect our sailors, our pilots, and our troops on the ground,” he said.
“This summer the nation mourned 42 servicemembers who died in accidents related to readiness challenges … including the death of 17 sailors aboard the USS McCain and USS Fitzgerald alone, plus other separate actions claiming the lives of 19 Marines and six soldiers.”
Thus far the implication that better funding would result in fewer military deaths has had no significant effect on the Capitol Hill budget impasse. Republican leaders in the House and Senate are pushing sizable increases in military spending for fiscal 2018, but Democrats have objected to those rises without similar boosts in other non-defense programs.
Lawmakers did agree upon a three-month extension of the fiscal 2017 budget earlier this week, averting a government shutdown until December. But in a letter to lawmakers earlier this month, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that funding extension does not include extra funds needed to keep pace with critical training and readiness programs.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.