After Fatal Accident, Marines in Waterborne AAVs Get Emergency Breathing Devices

AAV Camp Lejeune Marine Corps
U.S. Marines with 2d Assault Amphibious Battalion (AABn), 2d Marine Division (MARDIV), conduct raid rehearsal training in an amphibious assault vehicle at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, May 6, 2020. (Sgt. Gloria Lepko/U.S. Marine Corps)

Any Marine operating or riding in a waterborne amphibious assault vehicle will now get a supplemental emergency breathing device, has learned.

The Marine Corps has lifted its servicewide suspension on water operations for AAVs after one sank off the coast of California in July 2020. Eight Marines and one sailor riding inside drowned when the vehicle filled with water on its way back to their ship.

The decades-old tracked vehicles have been restricted to land operations for nearly nine months, but about a dozen hit the water again on April 13, four days after the ban on water ops was lifted. Ship-based operations remain on hold for the vehicles, but Marines now can train in them from ashore, Capt. Andrew Wood, a Marine spokesman at the Pentagon, said.

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Eighteen new safety tasks must be completed before AAVs can leave the shore, said 2nd Lt. Kyle McGuire, a spokesman for 1st Marine Division, which has resumed some AAV water training. Those tasks include training on the supplemental emergency breathing devices, small tanks about the size of a handheld bicycle pump that can provide oxygen to troops in emergency situations. They typically attach to life preservers and have a mouthpiece attached that Marines use to access the air. 

The nine troops killed in last year's accident had no such devices after the Marine Corps canceled the life-saving program that issued them in 2015 to save money. The devices had been in use for about four years until the military was hit with across-the-board spending cuts that a leader told Insider had derailed the program.

"I'm a big believer in the bottles," a former division commander told the outlet. "But, in 2015, we were scrambling for money, looking under the cushions of the sofas, trying to make ends meet. This was a convenient thing [to cut]."

The devices can provide up to five minutes of air for troops in peril. It's not a lot of time, an unidentified Marine told Insider, but can give troops a chance to remove their gear, get their bearings and take action. 

The addition of breathing devices is just one of the new policies set into motion by last summer's AAV disaster. Safety boats must accompany any waterborne AAVs, the new requirements state -- another safety measure that was absent during last year's operation.

All crew members and embarked personnel must be trained in water survival and have completed egress training to escape sinking vehicles or aircraft, the new rules state. Marines operating and riding in AAVs also are required to complete emergency evacuation drills on land and water.

The investigation into last year's accident found several Marines involved had not completed training or been instructed on what to do if their AAV experienced an emergency.

More than 350 of the Marine Corps' AAVs have now passed inspections to return to waterborne operations, Wood said. The Marine Corps has about 800 AAVs.

Aside from training and lifesaving equipment gaps, the accident investigation also revealed serious problems with the watertight integrity of the doomed AAV, which fell 385 feet to the bottom of the Pacific after filling with seawater. Later inspections found the problems persisted across the fleet, and repairs were required on any vehicles that fell outside the safety threshold.

As of last month, I and II Marine Expeditionary Forces, Training and Education Command, and Amphibious Vehicle Test Branch were found to be 100% compliant with new inspections, Wood said. The Japan-based III MEF, Marine Forces Reserve and Marine Corps Logistics Command continue to inspect their vehicles.

"Corrective actions are ongoing to bring the remainder of the fleet into compliance," Wood said.

Marines with the California-based 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, the same unit to which the vehicle involved in last summer's accident, was among the first to send its tracked vehicles back into the water.

Before the vehicles left land, the Marines spent a day in the classroom reviewing lessons from last summer's accident, McGuire said. The Marines also were briefed on new vehicle standard operating procedures and had to pass a test before they could participate in any new training. 

The training involved about a dozen vehicles and 45 Marines. They started with land-based training before moving into the water, where they eventually drove the AAVs in open ocean, McGuire said. More of the battalion's AAV platoons were scheduled to complete the same training in the days following, he said.

No embarked Marines are riding inside the vehicle during the training.

Wood said inspections continue for the rest of the Marine Corps' AAVs, and "any discrepancies will be addressed" before they're cleared for waterborne operations.  

"No AAV will enter the water prior to compliance of the inspection criteria," he said.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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