Pentagon Bean Counters Just Don’t Get It

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By Roger Charles

When the post-mortem on our current military venture in Iraq is finally written, and if an honest analysis is allowed, the failure of the United States to provide decent, best-available body armor to our fighters will be acknowledged as the worst equipment failure of all.

And, again assuming an honest report, the stupendous investigative work and writings of Defense Watch’s own editor, Nat Helms, will be highlighted as the benchmark on this topic. Without meaning to embarrass Nat (too much), I think it is fair to say that his series of articles published in DefenseWatch have ripped the scab off a festering sore that badly needs some strong exposure and treatment.

Nat has revealed yet one more sad example of a dysfunctional DoD acquisition system that cannot get body armor of acceptable quality to our grunts for a few thousands of dollars per unit cost, but one that can spend obscene amounts of taxpayers’ funds on aircraft that cost hundreds of millions of dollars each, or on warships that cost several billions of dollars each.

Brigades of Gucci-wearing, greasy-haired, K-street lobbyists in Washington protect the bloated budgets for what Hack called the “toys,” while the “boys” (and “girls,” too) have no such proponents to peddle influence on our Congress.

The end result is this same system with gold-plated, diamond-encrusted toys cannot give America’s Grunts that which most directly and yes, routinely, determines whether they live or die — the best-available body armor.

(Perhaps some interested DefenseWatch reader will take a good look at the disconnect between the DoD acquisition system that finds body armor at $4000 per set too expensive, while the DoD personnel system is now paying $400,000 in death insurance benefits to the beneficiaries of each KIA. Nat’s latest article show irrefutable evidence that a substantial number of these KIA’s would have survived had they had better body armor. Maybe the DoD bean counters will now re-compute their cost-benefit analysis to reflect the new death benefits. These soulless bureaucrats and their Perfumed Prince bosses have damn sure ignored the moral aspects of sending young Americans to the killing fields with inferior body armor. Sadly, the current rate of KIA’s is probably too low to force Pentagon budgeteers to re-calibrate their standing decision that favors cheaper, inferior body armor.)

The issue is a straight forward one. It is not like searching for the cure for cancer, or for a single cause of obesity, or for the origins of the universe.

What we have here is on one level “just” an engineering challenge, and the solution must combine only critical factors: (1) the best designs, based on scientific study and on input from those who wear it and fight in it; and (2) the best materials and workmanship that American industry can provide.

If either of these two critical factors is weak, incomplete, shoddy or otherwise flawed, America’s Grunts will continue to pay for the failures with their lives, their limbs and their blood, period.

Let’s be very clear about one point. We are not arguing for some sort of “cocoon,” as Marine General Peter Pace termed it last summer, which renders America’s Grunts impervious to the ordnance of today’s battlefield. Nor, are we arguing for some unrealistic suit of body armor that makes each soldier a mini-Abrams tank on two feet.

Our Grunts must be able to take the fight to the enemy, and they must be agile, mobile and lethal when doing so.

The battlefields where our enemies await our Grunts are deadly places, yet there are those who falsely claim that the goal is perfect protection for our troops. This is an insult to the bravery of our soldiers, and most especially of those who have paid the ultimate price in service to our great nation.

Nat Helm’s DefenseWatch articles have shown clearly and directly, that the current body armor most often issued to our general purpose forces, the Interceptor Armor, is poorly designed. He has also presented indisputable evidence that our government has found both the materials and workmanship, in thousands of sets of the body armor, to be sub-standard. (The recalls of thousands of sets speak volumes.

So, what is the solution?

If there was ever a case for the U.S. Congress to assert its constitutional duty to conduct oversight of the Executive Branch’s bungling of a sacred duty, it is this one. The Armed Services Committees of both the House and Senate should conduct extensive investigations into this entire matter. They should determine just how our nation spent hundreds of millions of dollars on body armor that was in far too many cases, sub-standard in both design and material.

A good place to start would be the role of the Army’s Natick Lab (as us old-timers knew it) and Aberdeen Proving Ground in their dual achievements — (1) approving inferior designs and material specifications for body armor to be procured from American contractors, and (2) rigging the test and evaluation process so as to preclude a “fair hearing” for other designs and materials that show demonstrated superiority to the current Interceptor armor.

Will the Congress rise to this challenge? I am not optimistic. Only an outraged public can force their elected representatives to do their duty, and I see little sign that enough Americans, care enough, to change the status quo.

Perhaps I should explain both my pessimism and why this is a “hot-button” issue for me (as it was for Hack). Nearly 38 years ago a Marine in my infantry platoon was shot in the front torso while just a few feet from me. He literally fell almost into my arms. When I turned him over to check for signs of his wound, I first noted the frothy blood dribbling from his mouth. I’d paid attention in my first aid class at Quantico and realized I had a Marine with a sucking-chest wound. My platoon corpsmen were otherwise engaged with other casualties and I was the only person in position to render immediate aid.

Knowing that I needed to get the entry wound sealed, I preceded to un-snap the metal buttons the Marine’s flack jacket. The enemy round had gone right through the zipper, mangling the teeth on the zipper, and making the zipper useless. Yet, I had to get the flack jacket open enough to get the wound sealed. What do you do now, Lieutenant?

Thanks to my K-bar, I was able to cut the cloth part of the zipper from top to bottom, opening access to the Marine’s chest sufficiently so that I could put the plastic wrapped bandage onto the wound, and wrap a strap around the Marine’s chest to keep the bandage in place. His breathing became more normal and the bloody froth from his mouth subsided. (The Marine survived.)

I recall this incident in this detail because it highlighted to me the stupidity of the engineers in the Army acquisition system who designed a zippered front to the flack jacket. (The snap buttons worked just fine. Why have both?)

Their failure to understand what an AK-47 round would do to the zipper, and the problems it would make for someone like myself who was trying to treat a wound earned them a stream of my strongest curses as I was forced to use my K-bar, and precious seconds, to open the Marine’s flack jacket. It was only after the Marine was evacuated that I had time to ponder the engineer’s greater stupidity — placing a large seam right up the center of the torso of the “protected” individual. (I issued orders later that day to my platoon that we would no longer use the zippers in our flack jackets.)

Today, 38 years later, thanks to Nat’s great reporting, we learn that “seams” in body armor are still, too often, the location of the fatal wounds!!

The entire disastrous story of inferior body armor is due to the simple fact that when it comes to America’s Grunts, no one in position of authority cares. Forget the media events and the crocodile tears at Arlington National Cemetery or the amputee wards at Bethesda and Walter Reed.

If any reader is a resident of the 12th Congressional District of Pennsylvania, you might want to read the following quote from your representative’s web page:

“Congressman Murtha is so well-respected for his first-hand knowledge of military and defense issues that he has been a trusted adviser to presidents of both parties on military and defense issues and is one of the most effective advocates for the national defense in the country. He is ranking member and former chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, a Vietnam combat veteran and a retired Marine Corps colonel with 37 years of service, a rare combination of experience that enables him to understand defense and military operations from every perspective.” (Emphasis added.)

And, If you get the chance, ask Jack Murtha to explain why his beloved Marines are dying today due to inferior body armor after he has spent nearly 32 years as a powerful congressman with real authority over the very defense budgets responsible for fielding the best-available protection for our Grunts?

SFTT Co Chair Roger Charles is an Annapolis graduate, a retired USMC Lt. Col. who commanded an infantry platoon in I Corps during the Vietnam War, is the winner of the prestigious Peabody Award for news coverage, and was a protégée’s of the late Col. David H. Hackworth. Rog can be contacted at

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