By Paul Connors
Recently, DefenseWatch Editor-in-Chief Nat Helms beat the mainstream press to the punch and broke a story regarding the complete breakdown in the DoD procurement system when he released the first in a series of articles concerning defective Interceptor body armor. In a multi-part series, Helms trumped the NY Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and other major print and broadcast news outlets in his reportage of the irregularities in the awarding of government contracts, the quality issues with finished products and the lack of oversight (until very recently) of a program that had an immediate and direct bearing on the physical safety and survivability of U.S. Marines and Army soldiers on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The initial story and the follow-on series are the exact type of reportage that SFTT.org founder, the late Colonel David H. Hackworth, U.S. Army, (Ret.) wanted to be able to provide to those most in need of our oversight, namely the average American GI. As a member of the editorial staff of DefenseWatch, I am very proud of Nat Helms and his unflagging efforts to research this story and bring it forward into the light of day. At the same time, I am also proud that it was SFTT and DefenseWatch that broke this major story.
Helms’ reportage was the public disclosure that the United States Marine Corps had conducted and completed a study that showed the inadequacy of the body armor system that had been fielded for the front line combat forces of the Marine Corps and the Army. This revelation, long overdue, is even more egregious in light of the fact that for the better part of the last three years, American military personnel, painfully and personally aware that government issued body armor was less than satisfactory, dug deep into their own pockets to pay for privately purchased body armor. Even three years ago, these soldiers and Marines knew that what they could buy, off the shelf, provided better protection than what the government was fielding through the massive military logistics system.
SFTT Foundation President Roger Charles, himself a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and a retired USMC Lieutenant Colonel has also written on this subject, as well as other related procurement failures. Both Roger Charles and Nat Helms are combat veterans of the Vietnam War and have seen the overall improvement in weapons systems from that war to the one we are fighting today. While our aircraft are faster and carry more impressive whiz-bang technology than the old A-6 Intruders, F-100 Super Sabres, F-105 Thuds, F-4 Phantoms and F-8 Crusaders that routinely “flew downtown” to bomb the capital of North Vietnam, it seems unconscionable that we send grunts into the field with body armor that provides little, if any, real protection from the more primitive weapons used by Iraqi insurgents to kill and maim our ground troops and destroy our vehicles.
Given the fact that the war in Iraq was a completely voluntary one, the failure to provide equipment to our troops that exceeded minimal standards is an especially glaring one. In the three years since the United States attacked Iraq and removed Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, more than 2,200 Americans have been killed in action or died of wounds. More than 15,000 Americans (the equivalent of an entire Army division) have been seriously wounded, with an inordinate number of those losing arms and legs. In view of the technological superiority and manufacturing capability inherent within the U.S. economy, the failure by the Department of Defense to correct qualitative and quantitative deficiencies in both body and vehicle armor is one that warrants, at the bare minimum, a serious look by a congressional investigating committee.
As someone who worked many years working inside the aerospace industry, in a career spent entirely in procurement, I believe I have a better than fair understanding of the how system is supposed to work. So when I read articles like those posted here by Mr. Helms or those published elsewhere, it was especially disturbing to me to when I read of the unnecessary deaths of so many fine soldiers and Marines who have dedicated themselves to protecting the rest of us from harm. Early in my career, I learned, in a formal training program conducted by Grumman Aerospace, that I was spending taxpayer dollars and with that role came a special responsibility – one that required me to conduct business honorably and ethically, remaining mindful that no matter how small the part I purchased, that someday, it would become part of a larger system and that an American GI’s life might be hanging in the balance. As a veteran myself, even then, I knew that soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coasties still in uniform depended on the honesty and integrity of the system that provided them with the tools of their trade.
Interceptor OTV body armor. Photo USMC
Unfortunately for those casualties of this latest war, it seems that too many military suppliers have only considered the potential for profits (at the expense of lives or limbs) and have, in too many cases, betrayed the GI on the battlefield. Much of this problem can be directly attributed to “no bid” contracts to suppliers with less than stellar reputations for quality. Another area of concern that merits review is the appointment of service secretaries and their deputies who come directly to the government from the very defense contractors they will be overseeing now that they are part of the administration. And all too often, despite prohibitions against the practice, far too many admirals, generals and senior field grade officers, many with recent program management experience find their way onto the payrolls of the defense companies they dealt with while still in uniform.
While the unethical and slimy transactions take place back here in CONUS, GIs continue to face a ruthless and determined enemy, using primitive but extremely effective and lethal field expedient weapons. It is a classic retelling of the David vs. Goliath biblical story. Sadly, at this point, Goliath is not the representative of the nasty Philistines, he is us.
At this time in history, we do not face a monolithic enemy with equivalent industrial capacity to the United States. Our soldiers and Marines face an insurgency, motivated by both nationalistic and religious fervor that wants the United States out of their country. They will do anything to achieve that end.
Since President Bush first appointed Secretary Rumsfeld to head up the Defense Department, there have been too may instances of policy failures with the potential to cause serious harm to the defense of the United States. Now, with a lack of objectively professional oversight for a procurement process with direct responsibility for the safety of combat troops, we have seen the tragic results. Right wing talk show hosts can smear critics of this failed policy till the cows come home, but those tactics do not change the fact that current procurement policies at the highest levels do not operate to the benefit of the end user of the gear at the tip of the spear.
If we are going to send our soldiers and Marines into hell-holes like Fallujah and An Najaf, then they should be protected to the maximum extent possible. They should have more than an even chance of going in the front door and coming out the back door in one piece. How many American Marines might be alive today had they been issued better body armor is really not the issue. The one that is and the one requiring real and honest answers is how did the system permit an inferior product to be issued, when its quality and protective capabilities were questioned from the very beginning.
Far too many Americans have become casualties who might otherwise survived. It is long past time that those responsible for this perfidy answer for their malfeasance and greed. The soldiers and Marines who protect us from harm abroad deserve better from a citizenry who should be protecting them from the greed and avarice of the corporate and business elites.
Paul Connors is a Senior Editor of DefenseWatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please address all comments and feedback to DWfeedback@yahoo.com.
©2006, Paul ConnorsShare