This piece was originally intended for the top story box on MotherJones.com. However, after three drawn-out revisions, the news cycle had moved on. I decided to post it here anyway because it features original reporting that illuminates one example of how the military industrial complex operates–with or without the consent of Congress.
Yet again the military finds itself facing questions about the body armor it supplies to its soldiers. A recent Government Accountability Office report suggested that some 240,000 additional sets of body armor purchased by the Army would have “failed testing” had it followed its own internal protocols. Why is the Army taking what the GAO called “unacceptable risk” by purchasing $8 billion worth of bad kit that its soldiers do not urgently need?
Referring to the new equipment at a press conference held only hours after the report was released, Brig. Gen. Peter Fuller proclaimed, “we have the best body armor by far.” Given the gamut of testing errors identified by the GAO report, it is unclear how he came to that conclusion.
The firmly worded study cites instances of poorly aimed shots, imprecise impact measurements, computational errors, and poor data protection that, in one case, allowed an official to accidentally delete the results of an entire test. While the Army has acknowledged that some of its protocols were not followed, it maintains that the GAO’s “findings have no significant impact on test results and subsequent contracting actions.”
Others are not so sure.
A History of Armor Issues
Since President Bush’s ill-planned invasion of Iraq, in which an estimated 50,000 soldiers on the ground lacked adequate body armor, the Pentagon has had to defend itself from questions about its kit. Many of these have come former Navy Secretary and current Democratic Senator from Virginia, Jim Webb.
On October 22nd, Webb sent another letter to Defense Sec. Robert Gates highlighting what he referred to as the “disturbing lack of consensus” between the GAO and the Army about the effectiveness of the latest body armor purchases.
Webb, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, began asking questions about the military’s gear in May 2007. Following a controversial NBC News report that raised questions about American kit, he and then Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) asked the GAO to “conduct an investigation that would reassess body armor systems currently being issued by all the military services and the Special Operations Command for effectiveness and reliability against the threats facing our troops in combat.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Ranking Member John McCain (R-Ariz.) echoed Webb’s request a few days later with a letter to Sec. Gates asking the Department of Defense (DoD) to “definitively and officially determine the facts regarding the protective qualities of the body armor” being used or considered by the military.
In spite of flaws in the NBC report that led one Army spokesman to accuse the network of “emotional terrorism,” the DoD Inspector General found serious problems with the Army’s body armor contracts in the follow-up study it prompted. In April 2008, the IG announced that he had “no assurance” that some $5.2 billion worth of body armor deals–13 of the Army’s existing 28 contracts–“met the required standards.”
This finding led Webb and Clinton to criticize “U.S. Army leadership for its failure to ensure that body armor meets the federal standards for awarded contracts.” They went on to note “that the DoD report underscores the need for a quick completion of the GAO’s current investigation into the effectiveness and reliability of body armor systems.”
The dogged oversight of Webb and Clinton has angered some on the right, who accuse Democrats of using body armor as an issue “to hammer the Army with.”
Talking with me after the letter to Gates was released to the press, a spokesperson from Webb’s office flatly dismissed the accusation: “From our experience this is an issue that travels across the aisle, given that body armor affects the well-being of our troops.”
Although McCain’s office did not respond to a request for comment, Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), the ranking member of the House Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, co-signed a letter with Chairman Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) for Army Sec. John McHugh to bring to his “attention the findings and recommendations in the report.”
Sen. Webb, Reps. Abercrombie and Bartlett and other defense industry experts all seem perplexed by the Army’s decision to certify four designs for full production that the GAO found “would have instead failed testing” had the Army followed its own protocols.
“I’m trying to puzzle it out myself,” said Mandy Smithberger, a national security investigator at the Project on Government Oversight, soon after the GAO report was published.
She went on to point out that the Army has the “time to make sure there aren’t any significant testing issues” that could compromise soldiers’ security. The $8 billion of contracts in question are for body armor to augment current kit. The GAO report notes, “according to Army officials, there are adequate [supplies]… already in the inventory to meet current requirements.”
Philip Coyle, a former assistant secretary of Defense in charge of the Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, pointed out that the Pentagon is “always looking for improvements” it can make to soldiers’ kit. But it is unclear how its procurement of 240,000 questionable body armor sets aids the Army in this aim.
“Absent a compelling, emergent operational requirement,” Webb has strongly urged Gates “to adopt the GAO’s recommendations.” The most contentious recommendations call for a review of the flawed testing data by independent ballistics experts or for the Army to repeat the First Article Testing entirely. This would likely be an embarrassment for the Army since it took over body armor testing a year ago, in part to alleviate quality concerns.
“The Army knows how to do what the Senator is asking them,” Coyle, who is now a senior advisor at the Center for Defense Information, told me. “I don’t know why they’re fighting him.”
As the GAO soberly concluded, “the Army would be taking unacceptable risk if it were to field these armor designs without taking additional steps to gain the needed confidence that the armor will perform as required.”
When the NBC report first stirred up trouble for the Army, Brig. Gen. Mark Brown said, “we value our soldiers very highly, and we do everything we can do to ensure that they have the finest in force protection as they go into the battle.” Pentagon officials contacted for this story echoed similar sentiments whenever questions were raised as to the quality of the Army’s body armor.
The inscrutable decision to purchase nearly a quarter million sets of potentially defective body armor cast doubt on this oft-repeated assertion. It seems the Army is putting America’s beleaguered soldiers needlessly at risk.
Photo credit: The U.S. Army (via Flickr)