Report recommends Pentagon address longstanding problem: Fatigue


A new report from a congressional watchdog recommends the Pentagon come up with a comprehensive plan to make sure military service members get enough sleep.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office, the research arm of Congress, found that while the Department of Defense recommends 7 hours of sleep, many aren’t getting that much.

“The department’s overarching fatigue-related guidance emphasizes service members obtain at least 7 hours of sleep for optimal performance and readiness,” according to the GAO report. “For over a decade, DOD surveys have found that the majority of service members report sleeping 6 or fewer hours per night.”

Military services have long studied sleep. The Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force conducted 130 fatigue-related research projects from 2017 to 2023. But that doesn’t mean service members are getting enough rest.

“Fatigue caused by inadequate sleep can negatively affect a service member’s performance and has contributed to accidents resulting in deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to ships, vehicles, and aircraft,” according to the report. “DOD recognizes that impairment from fatigue can be equivalent to the effects of alcohol intoxication and significantly increases the risk of physical injury.”

The report noted that while the Department of Defense has made progress, more needs to be done.

“DOD and the services have taken steps to address fatigue-related issues, such as developing guidance on fatigue management, but DOD faces oversight and enterprise-wide collaboration challenges in managing fatigue,” according to the report.

A 2021 DOD study found among active-duty personnel, fatigue appeared to be more the rule than the exception. Rates of people sleeping less than 7 hours per night in the military were roughly twice of those in the civilian population. DOD estimates between 2005 and 2018, the most recent data available, found about one-third of service members reported sleeping 7 or 8 hours per night, while the majority of service members reported sleeping 6 or fewer hours per night, and about one-third of service members rate their sleep as fairly bad or very bad.

The report noted “characteristics specific to military occupations may contribute to service member fatigue, including extended shifts, night operations, high noise environments, operating heavy equipment, and high operational tempo.”

The GAO report looked at selected military jobs with a high potential to be affected by fatigue: fixed-wing and rotary-wing pilots; remotely piloted aircraft pilots; aviation maintenance personnel; motor vehicle operators; and on-alert operations, such as nuclear missileers and watch floor officers.

The GAO’s own survey found about 67% of the 190 officers surveyed reported sleeping 6 to 7 hours per night, while 26% of respondents reported sleeping less than 6 hours per night. More telling: 46% of respondents rated the quality of their sleep during the work week as moderately poor and 4% rated it as extremely poor.

An Army remote pilot told the GAO that “you are generally sleep deprived always.” A Marine fighter pilot put it this way: “Collateral duties in addition to flying significantly increase workload for most pilots, myself included. Sleep policies apply specifically to the night before flying events. Days where the pilot is not flying are effectively unregulated in terms of crew day and crew rest. The result is planned periods of sleep deprivation in order to accomplish tasks that accumulate due to the need to adhere to the letter of policies regarding crew day and crew rest when flying.”

A Marine helicopter pilot said personnel are spread too thin and that “sleep deprivation has an underlying cause from the workload Marine pilots are faced with.”

Lack of sleep can have fatal consequences. The Army has found that fatigue was a cause in 8% of tactical vehicle accidents between fiscal years 2010 to 2019. The Naval Safety Center found that between 2015 and 2019 there were 489 reported instances of fatigued-driving related fatalities, serious injuries, and property damage involving Marines and sailors. In 2017, the Navy had four significant mishaps at sea, including two collisions that resulted in the loss of 17 sailors’ lives and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to Navy ships, which the Navy attributed partly to sailor overwork and fatigue, according to the report.

Part of the problem may be that no one seems to be in charge of sleep and fatigue issues.

“We found DOD has not assessed DOD’s oversight structure for fatigue-related efforts to identify an office or an individual with sufficient authority, sufficient staffing and resources, and committed leadership to oversee the implementation” of DOD sleep policies, according to the GAO report.

The GAO further found all the sleep and fatigue research done by the military services was fragmented and sometimes duplicative.

“We found multiple organizations within DOD involved in the same broad area researching sleep and fatigue,” according to the report.

The GAO found that for 29 projects the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force spent about $25 million. DOD plans to spend much more to study sleep using wearable devices. In a July 2023 report to Congress, DOD estimated the Defense Health Agency will invest roughly $337 million over six wearable device-related programs from fiscal years 2021 to 2027.

“DOD officials acknowledged that they lack a comprehensive inventory needed to allow the department to understand and identify projects that are currently in place and reveal redundancies, determine gaps, identify cost saving opportunities, and identify methods to show program impacts,” according to the report.