By Nathaniel R. Helms
US Marine Corps Major General Smedley Darlington Butler received two Medals of Honor for incredible bravery and the title of world-class hypocrite because he dared call war and the trapping of war “a racket.”
In the case at hand the product is body armor and the stakes are millions of dollars in Defense Department contracts. To get at it three huge players and a pack of yapping wannabes resorted to slick public relations efforts, retired generals masquerading as pitchmen, and retired DOD civilian procurement experts double dipping from the public trough. Among them they have managed to field good body armor when much better body armor is available, barely provide an adequate number of so-called “up-armored” soft-skinned HUMVEES for use as armored personnel carriers, and a host of scandals, improprieties, and deceitful behavior that is the accepted standard in the armaments industry.
Many of the former Perfumed Princes responsible for the so-far miserable performance by the industry will unabashedly say they “deserve” the opportunities the military-industrial complex has afforded them because they “dedicated their lives” to public service.
Others will tell you they are honest workers merely laboring within the sordid confines of the system that already exists. One retired Army officer who admittedly doesn’t have a problem making six-figures pumping inferior body armor as a consultant said he has had to “train his gag reflex so he won’t puke” when he talks about his job.
Another of the many veterans of the procurement wars who talked to DefenseWatch on assurances of anonymity shrugged off the grubby realities and disappointments of selling body armor as part of the program – much like death in war, he said. The formula for success in the body armor game, he explained, is short enough to recite in one breath. Successful players stay in the background, throw the retiring brass a gold-plated bone to gnaw on, keep a few lobbyists around to put their names in the ring, and make big campaign contributions to the influence peddlers. Payback comes from selling the Pentagon a product relatively easy to produce that earns a high rate of return and is good enough to cheaply get the job done. The Interceptor OTV body armor developed by the US Army is a text book example, he claimed.
Pinnacle Armor’s Murray Neal, whose small Fresno, Cal. company makes “Dragon Skin” body armor, was the only manufacturer to go on record. He does not understand why Pinnacle’s patented body armor, which costs at least four times as much as the Interceptor OTV body armor being issued today, is not being provided instead. Dragon Skin, which was reported on extensively by DefenseWatch in previous articles (See Part I and Part II) , is considered by many experts to be 30 to 40 years ahead in capability to Interceptor OTV body armor.
Neal said his 30-person operation can’t run with the big dogs because he can’t afford the price of playing in the big leagues.
That doesn’t mean Neal and Pinnacle Armor isn’t trying to get in the game where there are millions and millions of dollars to be made. Pinnacle is already selling vehicle and aircraft armor components to the Army and US Air Force, and its products are being scrutinized at the Army Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland for future development. Another expert who works in the Pentagon approving contracts said Neal relentlessly pursues every opportunity to make some headway selling his products to DOD. Pinnacle officials are actively courting their legislative representatives from California and have provided tours, talks, and a variety of other entreaties to generals, Senators, Representatives and DOD officials to obtain attention for Dragon Skin, he claimed.
Recently Pinnacle sold its Dragon Skin boy armor to nine American generals currently serving in Afghanistan so they can “evaluate” it, said Paul Chopra, a spokesperson for Pinnacle. It is also worn by members of the US Secret Service Presidential Protection detail, private contractors serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as many soldiers and journalists as can afford it. Last week war correspondent Michael Yon, who prefers Dragon Skin to the Interceptor gear he is wearing now, declined to buy it when he learned of its “almost $7,000 price tag” delivered to him in Iraq. The price put it out of his reach, he said.
There is an old axiom in business that says, “It takes money to make money.” Nothing new there, said one of Neal’s colleagues and a very successful competitor of Pinnacle during a telephone interview. That businessman is a distinguished former military officer, inventor, and international industrialist with a sense of humor sharpened in half-a-century of conversing in Pentagon double-speak. He chuckled slightly at Neal’s well-founded complaints.
“Composite armor technology has been around since 1968. Kevlar and other materials followed fairly close beyond that. When I got into the body armor business again recently there was old boy resistance to the fielding of our units, but the comparative tests were so revealing that for the first time in 50 years we haven’t been sandbagged by some old boy network,” that contented expert said.
Being without Dragon Skin doesn’t mean American warriors are going into battle completely unprotected. Compared to what soldiers went to war wearing thirty years ago Interceptor body armor is nothing short of miraculous. When worn in conjunction with SAPI plates, Kevlar helmets, and the new “QuadGuard” armor that hopefully will be fielded soon by the Marine Corps for protecting extremities, American-made body armor offers protection many threat levels ahead of what it replaced. It is so good Interceptor body armor is a primary reason why many warriors who have lost arms, eyes, and legs did not lose their lives despite suffering massive trauma. As long as the vital organs are protected the human body can take tremendous punishment, the experts agreed.
There are two separate yet insidiously linked circumstances that keep “the best” body armor away from the warriors who would be better prepared to survive combat if they had it. One reason is purely political and the other is technical, but both are impacted by the processes and procedures embedded in Pentagon thinking that keeps America’s best from receiving America’s best body armor.
The scientific reason is relatively straight forward obstacle waiting to be overcome by scientific endeavor. Body armor experts within the scientific and engineering communities say that blunt trauma injuries, also known as impact injuries, are caused by bullets and shrapnel moving at high speed that slams into a war fighter’s armor covered body and dents it exactly like a car fender after a wreck. In the parlance of body armor engineers it is the phenomena of “terminal energy.” Although Interceptor body armor prevents some terminal energy injures it doesn’t prevent them all, a circumstance that could be changed by using other products already on the market, all of the experts said.
“People were talking about strength of material and terminal energy and strengths of terminal effects, but if they don’t have a structure behind them. When an impact makes a dent in the skin of 44mm or deeper than that, and breaks bones and smashes organs, it is because all that light weight stuff isn’t good enough,” one expert explained. Interceptor armor prevents some of it and Pinnacle’s “Dragon Skin” does a far better job, but there is still “plenty of room to grow,” he said.
Equally vexing and equally insurmountable is the Pentagon’s procurement process. It is no secret to anyone who cares to know that the arms procurement process allowed by the Pentagon is a revolving door to lucrative employment for generals, politicians, and lobbyists wallowing in the cornucopia of buying national security. They know how the game is played and they know better than to rock the boat. Those who don’t need not apply, the experts agreed.
For example, on September 8, 2005 retired U. S. Air Force General John W. Handy, the former commander of the United States Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM), joined Horizon Lines, America’s largest domestic ocean carrier. It just so happens that Horizon enjoys a very close working relationship with the Department of Defense moving military equipment around the world and USTRASCOM is the single transportation manager for air, land and sea transportation for the Department of Defense.
According to a September 8 Business Wire press release Handy said,
“In carrying out my military responsibilities I have been quite impressed with the customer focus and delivery reliability at Horizon Lines. Chuck Raymond and his team have taken the company to new service levels and I am excited to have the opportunity to contribute to Horizon’s growth.”
Another senior military officer who took advantage of the revolving door is Mr. Fred Moosally, President of Lockheed Martin – Naval Electronics & Surveillance Systems and the chief mover and shaker of the $18 billion US Coast Guard “Deep Water” modernization program. He used to be Captain Fred Moosally, an Annapolis football star and former Captain of the ill-fated battleship USS Iowa. Moosally was the center of a storm that brewed up 19 April, 1989 when he declined to accept the help of a professional US Navy accident investigator and ordered some 250 sailors aboard the Iowa to quickly clean up the accident scene after a 16″ gun in Turret #2 blew up. On his orders the sailors scrubbed the scarred turret, heaving immense steel plates and bulky pieces of equipment overboard and scrubbing off splatters of gore and painting the structure inside and out before an investigation of the accident could be conducted.
Another recent example of the revolving door syndrome involves Point Blank Body Armor, Inc. and retired four-star Army Gen. Larry Ellis On May 3, 2005 Point Blank hired Ellis to lead the company. Before retiring Ellis was the commander of US Forces Command (FORSCOM). FORSCOM is the Army’s largest major command. The day after Ellis took over the U.S. Marine Corps recalled 5,277 defective Interceptor vests manufactured by Point Blank that set off a scandal that still hasn’t settled in some quarters. On July 20, despite the company’s failure, Point Blank received an additional $10.1 million body armor contract from the U.S. government.
Proponents of the system say that industry is simply taking advantage of the experience offered by the retiring military officers. Critics claim such examples are part of the self-perpetuating system of procurement abuses that passes for honest industry in the Pentagon.
It is certainly no secret that the arms industry representatives (who often used to be generals and colonels themselves) begin eyeing prospective candidates for hire two or three years before the pampered Perfumed Princes in the Pentagon are due to retire.
Everyone already knows each other quite well from countless meetings, briefings, luncheons, dinners, and corporate soirees where the officers and their ladies are swirled and twirled down the yellow brick road leading to six and seven-figure corporate jobs after their retirement. It is really just a matter of deciding who will be a “team” player, one retired officer who failed the test explained.
This reporter spent a time in the early Seventies as a major general’s “enlisted aide,” a position that allowed me to almost invisibly watch the machinations of a host of general officers and corporate powerbrokers while they danced around the questions and issues of propriety, ethics, and special interests during development sessions for the Utility Tactical Transport Aircraft System (UTTAS) program. Between the quiet beeps that told me to change the briefing slides I used to spend fascinating days listening to the subtle and not-so-subtle suggestions, loaded comments, double-entendres and outright suggestions of impropriety exchanged between senior Army officers and corporate executives while they dickered and bickered over spending billions of tax payer dollars developing what eventually became the UH-60 “Blackhawk” transport helicopter. Whatever practices they cooked up that the lawyers suggested “might be considered questionable” were immediately classified.
“What is said here stays here,” was the mantra of the day.
And from what DefenseWatch was recently told, nothing has changed except the technology. As our inquiry has already shown, there are plenty of investigations, inquiries, probes, and hearings about allegations of impropriety, fraud, theft, cheating, lying and stealing currently underway in Congress, the courts, and the bowels of the Pentagon.
It is already old news that the US Air Force has lost the ability to spend its own money because of scandalous behavior by Boeing Corporation officials and members of the Secretary of the Air Force’s staff over buying new refueling tankers. Currently in the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) the U.S Army Inspector General, the Criminal Investigation Division of the Army, and the FBI are probing allegations of corruption by senior military officer within that command. Meanwhile the body armor industry is holding its breath while the Justice Department investigates allegedly fraudulent behavior in its ranks. Within the past two years all three of the major body armor manufacturers have been sued for making faulty body armor and one company – Second Chance Corporation – that was making millions in government contracts making body armor for American warriors two years ago – has been driven out of business for fraud.
Apparently Butler was right. War is just a racket for some folks. Too bad it is America’s best that pays the freight.
DefenseWatch Editor Nathaniel R. “Nat” Helms is a Vietnam veteran, former police officer, long-time journalist and war correspondent living in Missouri. He is the author of two books, Numba One – Numba Ten and Journey Into Madness: A Hitchhiker’s Account of the Bosnian Civil War, both available at www.ebooks-online.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Send Feedback responses to email@example.com