Think Tanks and Leadership with Integrity

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I was fascinated by a recent article which appeared in the New York Times entitled “How Think Tanks Amplify Corporate America’s Influence.”

More to the point, I was surprised to see the naivete of influential people like Harvey Cox of Harvard University who couldn’t believe that think tanks could act unethically.

Sadly, the lines between “thinking” and “lobbying” have long been blurred and “corporate America” isn’t the only culprit. There are far too many instances where the DoD and the U.S. Army have employed theoretically disinterested parties to hide outright incompetence and questionable behavior from the prying eyes of the public and the warriors they lead.

Interceptor Body Armor

One needs to look no further than the despicable cover-up of the U.S. Army’s shoddy testing and deployment of substandard “Interceptor” body armor.  This cover-up has been amply covered by SFTT for close to a decade and has been the subject of several damning Inspector General Reports and the media:

For instance, take the GAO (Government Accountability Office) report of October, 2009 which recommended independent testing of body armor after their investigations had uncovered much of the same shoddy body armor testing now chronicled in the latest DOD IG report.   We listened to much of the same nonsense and double-talk from our military leaders, but in bowing to public pressure the Secretary of the Army asked the National Research Council to investigate body armor testing procedures.

I am not sure what became of this National Research Council study, but I suspect that its sole purpose was to lead Congress to think that “things are under control.”  Clearly, they aren’t.

Actually, the National Research Council is a “think tank” often employed by our government to put distance between themselves and potentially harmful setbacks to their careers.   While many believe that contracting academics will provide a “dispassionate” and science-based opinion, academicians rely on government grants.  Cynically, I for one have a difficult time believing they would bite the hand that feeds them.

In any event, the mandate of the National Research Council is to recommend new testing procedures but not opine on the blatant disregard of existing test procedures and guidelines that led to the GAO’s and IG’s damning reports.

I am quite sure that Lt. Gen. Phillips and his cohorts like Col. Cole, Project Manager for Soldier Protection, and US Army Brigadier General Peter N. Fuller, the Program Executive Officer of the Soldier Systems Center, are thrilled to see that a “disinterested” third-party had intervened to cover up their gross incompetence.

Despite much evidence to the contrary that only a blind man could ignore, Lt. Gen Phillips stated that ”I am not aware of any incident down range where the body armor (Interceptor) failed to protect against a round that it was designed to defeat.”  Ummm …

If this were true, why did the DoD turned loose a bevy of beltway lawyers to keep autopsy records secret that clearly indicated that the U.S. Army was sending men and women into combat with defective body armor?

With the support of brilliant pro bono legal representation by a team from the NYC office of Kirkland & Ellis, LLC, a federal district judge in D.C.  issued a ruling in 2010 on SFTT’s editor’s request under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) for forensic records held by the Department of Defense regarding the performance of government-issued body armor.

Despite the fact that the U.S. Government lost its appeal under the FOIA some 6 years ago, the autopsy records remain under wraps thanks to the continued efforts of DoD lawyers to “bury the truth.”

In preliminary filings DOD admitted that for the two calendar years (2006 and 2007) for which records were requested 103 KIA’s died from ballistic wounds to the torso. It further admitted that only 51 of these 103 KIA’s (49.5%) had body armor plates shipped back to the US for forensic examination,  and that these 51 KIA’s had a total of 155 plates returned with the “service members.”

Of these 51 KIA’s, 18 had “body armor description sheets with information responsive” to the SFTT editor’s FOIA request. (By DOD’s own definition, a “body armor description sheet” indicates that the “body armor is not perfectly intact.”)

Assuming that only one body armor protective plate was struck in each KIA’s tactical engagement, that means that a staggering 35.3% (18 of 51) of the plates were “not perfectly intact.”

It’s hard to imagine that DOD would not release these records if they proved that although 35% of the KIA’s during the specified two-year period for whom even fairly complete records exist had “not perfectly intact” plates, not a single KIA resulted from penetration of the plates.

As a former banker who suffered through countless countless consulting firms (with a well-scripted mandate) and now a close witness to the tragedy of the military cover-up of defective body armor, I have sadly learned that “think tanks” are no substitute for ethical leadership.

The brave men and women who serve our country so valiantly deserve leaders who put the safety of their troops before their own careers.  Is this asking too much?

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Body Armor Reports by National Research Council

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On November 20, 2009, Secretary John McHugh formally announced that the National Research Council would perform an independent evaluation of the US Army’s body armor test procedures.  The announcement by Secretary McHugh followed a month of Pentagon-spin by military wordsmiths intent on undermining the devastating findings of the General Accountability Office (“GAO”) in their Report to Congressional Requesters, entitled “Independent Expert Assessment of Army Body Armor Test Results and Procedures Needed Before Fielding.

Thanks to the efforts of Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) and others, Congressional leaders were not side-tracked and continued to insist that the Department of Defense address the issues raised in the GAO report.    “In his October 22 letter to Secretary Gates, Senator Webb noted a disturbing lack of consensus between the GAO and the Department of Defense Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) in their evaluations of Army body armor testing.  ‘Continued controversy over the reliability of new body armor can undermine public confidence,’ Senator Webb wrote. ‘Ultimately, those who rely on this armor for protection may also question its performance.'”   Senator Webb is too kind, I had suggested that a general recall of body armor might be in order if this had been an automobile with defective brakes.  Where is the outrage?

Senior Investigative Reporter and Editor for SFTT, Roger Charles has written extensively on the 110-page GAO report.   Mr. Charles sadly concludes that despite shoddy test procedures against protocol test standards that are more than 30 years old,  the US Army (fully supported by the Department of Defense) selected the option that increased risk to the Soldier, while decreasing risk/cost to the contractors!

The National Research Council (“NRC”) has now released two reports in response to Secretary McHugh’s request to evaluate the US Army Test Procedures.  The Phase I NRC report on body armor was issued on December 30, 2009,  In this initial phase, the NRC committee evalutated to following subjects:

  • “The committee will comment on the validity of using laser profilometry/laser interferometry techniques to determine the contours of an indent made by a ballistic test in a non-transparent clay material at the level of precision established in the Army’s procedures for testing personal body armor. If laser profilometry/laser interferometry is not a valid method, the committee will consider whether a digital caliper can be used instead to collect valid data.
  • The committee will also provide interim observations regarding the column-drop performance test described by the Army for assessing the part-to-part consistency of a clay body used in testing body armor.”

The Phase II NRC report on body armor test procedures was released on April 22, 2010 and contains 19 specific recommendations to improve the integrity of body armor test procedures.   The report was issued on behalf of the committee by MG (ret) Larry G. Lehowicz to J. Michael Gilmore, Director, Operational Test & Evaluation for the DOD.

In the Phase II NRC Body Armor report (p. 11)  recommends that the “Army’s medical and testing communities should be adequately funded to expedite the research necessary both to quantify the medical results of blunt force trauma on tissue and to use those results as the updated mathematical underpinnings of the back face deformation (BFD) body armor testing methodology.

“Regardless of the current imperfect correlation between existing medical data and the BFD approach, the committee believes that the current methodology for testing body armor should be continued, mainly because this approach has allowed the Army to send body armor with adequate survivability characteristics to soldiers in combat. Importantly, the committee was informed earlier by the Program Executive Office–Soldier that no soldier deaths are known to be attributable to a failure of the issued ceramic body armor.”

While it is certainly reassuring that body armor reliability and testing integrity will be improved by the application of modern technology applied in a consistent manner, I find it surprising that the US Army has decided to withhold critical field data from the NRC to determine to determine the effectiveness of currently approved body armor.  Is it true that “no soldier deaths are known to be attributable to a failure of the issued ceramic body armor?”  Indeed, the New York Times reports that the US Army has autopsy reports that confirm that defective body armor has contributed to the death of our troops.

What is the truth?  The NRC is quite right in asking to examine US Army and Marine Corps autopsy records to further determine the level of protection afforded by our frontline troops.  Why is the US Army deliberately withholding this information?  The US Army, our Congressional leaders, the American public and, most importantly, our troops deserve  the comprehensive report that was promised them when Secretary McHugh requested the intervention of the NRC.  Anything less is reprehensible.  

There is still time for the NRC to insist on receiving autopsy data from the US Army.  For the NRC report to have any level of credibility, the inclusion of actual battlefield data based on autopsy studies is essential to determine the effectiveness of current body armor.  

Richard W. May

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