The top US Marine Corps (USMC) officer has ordered a service-wide safety review just days after a Bell Boeing MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor crashed on 27 August in Australia, killing three people and injuring five more.

The directive, issued by assistant commandant General Eric Smith on 29 August, calls for a “thorough and harsh review” of the USMC’s safety practices.

MV-22 USMC Osprey Darwin Australia

Source: US Marine Corps

MV-22 Ospreys in Darwin, Australia. The US Marine Corps has maintained a rotational force of ground combat troops and aviation assets based in Australia’s Northern Territory since 2012

“Every aspect of training – from safe weapons handling to proper ground guides, to the ruthless adherence to standards in our aircraft and vehicles – demonstrates that we are indeed professional warriors,” says the document, titled “Guidance for Marine Corps-Wide Safety Review”.

By 15 September, “commanders and supervisors at all levels shall review their units’ attitudes regarding safety, examine the risks of their operational environment and identify ways and means to mitigate risks to an acceptable level,” says the order.

Though an assistant commandant, Smith is the service’s ranking officer owing to political gridlock in the US Senate that has left the USMC without a confirmed service chief.

The guidance describes safety as a “key element” to the USMC’s combat effectiveness.

The order came two days after the fatal MV-22 crash but does not specifically acknowledge that event, which was the latest in a series of deadly crashes involving the USMC’s tiltrotor fleet.

The guidance does reference an unspecified “training mishap” and notes “every possible measure” will be taken to prevent such incidents. It mentions general tasks, such as ensuring personnel wear protective equipment and get adequate sleep.

The USMC has separately confirmed the incident, which took place on Melville Island north of Darwin, killed crew chief Corporal Spencer Collart, pilot Captain Eleanor LeBeau and squadron executive officer Major Tobin Lewis.

An investigation into the cause of the crash is underway, the USMC says.

Episodes of so-called “hard-clutch engagement” have occurred twice in the past year, prompting the US military to ground some V-22s across multiple military services.

In addition to the USMC, the US Air Force (USAF) and US Navy (USN) operate variants of the Osprey for special-operations aviation support and carrier-resupply missions, respectively.

Hard-clutch engagements occur when the Osprey’s clutch releases from the rotor system and suddenly re-engages, according to the Pentagon’s V-22 joint programme office. The hard engagement sends an impulse through the drive-train, which can potentially damage the system.

In 2022, the USAF separately grounded its CV-22 fleet for two weeks due to the clutch issue.

While previous groundings were subsequently lifted, the structural problem in the complex tiltrotor aircraft has never been fully addressed. The services instead released modified guidelines for aircrew meant to avoid situations likely to cause hard-clutch engagement and added the scenario to simulator training curricula.

The USAF said at the time that those measures were necessary until a permanent solution could be identified.

The Pentagon has declined to address if the latest incident is related to hard-clutch engagement. Deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh on 29 August said the cause of the crash remains under investigation.

“Each incident undergoes its own investigation,” Singh says. “I wouldn’t right now apply a sweeping broad stroke across every incident linking them together.”

Whatever the cause, the latest crash continues a trend of dangerous aviation mishaps for the USMC, including those involving V-22s and other aircraft. Multiple USMC Ospreys went down in 2022, including a crash in Norway that killed four marines and a fatal crash in Southern California that killed five.

While fatal aviation accidents occur across all US military services outside of combat, the USMC has the worst record by far.

Data published by the National Commission on Military Aviation Safety in 2022 showed the USMC’s rate of “Class A” mishaps – the most serious category – was substantially greater than that of the US Army, USN or USAF.

Between 2007 and 2018, those three services logged a combined Class A mishap rate of roughly 1.5 events per 100,000 flying hours – well above the commercial industry’s 0.17 rate, the report shows. By comparison, the USMC’s rate exceeded two Class A accidents in most years between 2007 and 2018, with the rolling rate steadily increasing during the period even while the other services’ rates remained flat or declined.

“We continue to lose nearly a platoon’s worth of marines and sailors to training accidents and off-duty mishaps each year,” Smith’s safety-review order says. That number is not specific to aviation incidents.

A platoon includes approximately 30 personnel.