The Pentagon’s Procurement Mess
When we send our men and women in uniform into harm’s way, one thing all Americans probably agree on is that those men and women should be equipped with the best hardware we can provide. Whether you supported war in Iraq or opposed it makes no difference — once soldiers are taking fire, what matters is that they have the tools they need to get them through it in one piece.
Right? Too bad the Pentagon doesn’t agree.
In the latest example of our forces in Iraq being kitted out with dangerously sub-standard equipment, Newsweek has found that the Army deployed its newest toy, the Stryker armored vehicle, into the conflict even after its chief weapons tester judged that the Stryker wouldn’t stand up to a hit from a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG):
Tom Christie was worried. It was the fall of 2003, and the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester had noted problems with the Army’s pride and joy, the new Stryker Armored Vehicle. The $4 billion program was seen as the vanguard of the lighter, high-speed Army of the future. But even with new add-on armor, the Stryker “did not meet Army requirements” against rocket-propelled grenades in tests, Christie wrote in his 2003 annual report. Now the Pentagon was about to deploy the first 300 Strykers to Iraq while an insurgency raged.
So Christie did something unusual: he sent a classified letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s office urging the military to be very cautious about where in Iraq it deployed the Stryker. The response? “I was slapped down,” says the straight-talking Christie. “It was: ‘What are we supposed to do with this [letter]? … Are you trying to embarrass somebody?’ “…
So eager were some Army brass to push the Stryker, critics say, that they paid three times as much for it as the competing bid and lowered its performance requirements whenever it failed testing. And even though the Stryker is largely untried, Gen. Larry Ellis of Army Forces Command sent a March 30 memo to the chief of staff asking for more money for the program as far ahead as fiscal year 2008-09.
Not being able to take a hit from an RPG is a Big Deal, because RPGs are the Saturday Night Specials of the modern battlefield — they are cheap, man-portable, require little training to use, and are everywhere. Thanks to aggressive exporting by the USSR, and then thanks to aggressive copying by the various states that used them, RPGs are floating around on the world’s arms markets in huge numbers. Guerrilla and insurgent forces around the world rely on them to defeat the armored forces of their opponents (and the Iraqis have been fast learners in this regard).
So you can imagine why sending a troop-carrier that can’t withstand a hit from an RPG into a region that is (a) full of angry insurgents and (b) full of RPGs is a recipe for trouble. Thankfully not many Strykers have been lost to date, but that may have more to do with there not being that many of them in-theater than with any inherent superiority.
This story — of the brass pushing a weapon into the field over the cries of the people who have tested the thing that it isn’t ready — is an old one in defense contracting, unfortunately. Tom Christie, the tester mentioned above, was one of the “Acolytes” of the brilliant fighter pilot John Boyd, who led the crusade inside the Pentagon against overweight fighter aircraft that produced the superlative F-16. Another of Boyd’s acolytes was James Burton, whose book The Pentagon Wars recounts his experiences as a tester of the Army’s Bradley Fighting Vehicle, which as originally designed was essentially a deathtrap — if it was hit, its armor would catch fire and give off a toxic smoke, choking everyone on board. Burton strove valiantly to stop the Bradley from going into production until its problems were resolved, but too many bureaucrats were on board the Bradley gravy train by that point for anyone to allow a mere Air Force colonel to get in the way, so the Bradley was steamrolled into production over his objections. Thankfully, in the almost twenty years since then, the Bradley has been upgraded sufficiently so that it is a relatively safe platform to ride into battle on — at least, when compared to the Stryker.
So, why push so hard to get the Strykers into Iraq? Newsweek also reports that the main rationale is because of another procurement debacle — the shortage of armored HMMWVs (“Humvees”):
The military is 1,800 armored Humvees short of its own stated requirement for Iraq. Despite desperate attempts to supply bolt-on armor, many soldiers still ride around in light-skinned Humvees. This is a latter-day jeep that, as Brig. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, assistant division commander of the 1st Armored Division, concedes in an interview, “was never designed to do this…It was never anticipated that we would have things like roadside bombs in the vast number that we’ve had here.”
According to internal Pentagon e-mails obtained by Newsweek, the Humvee situation is so bad that the head of the U.S. Army Forces Command, Gen. Larry Ellis, has urged that more of the new Stryker combat vehicles be put into the field. Sources say that the Army brass back in Washington have not yet concurred with that. The problem: the rubber-tire Strykers are thin-skinned and don’t maneuver through dangerous streets as well as the fast-pivoting, treaded Bradley.
According to a well-placed Defense Department source, the Army is so worried about the Stryker’s vulnerability that most of the 300-vehicle brigade currently in Iraq has been deployed up in the safer Kurdish region around Mosul. “Any further south, and the Army was afraid the Arabs would light them up,” he says.
And why aren’t there more armored HMMWVs in-theater? Because the Pentagon didn’t anticipate that HMMWVs would operate under enemy fire:
The basic M998 Humvee, or High Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle, began rolling off assembly lines in 1985, replacing the venerable Jeep and variously configured to serve as a field ambulance, scout vehicle or war zone taxi.
An armored Humvee, the M1114, first appeared in 1993 but the Army initially ordered a few, apparently not envisioning post-Cold War conflicts and peacekeeping missions such as Somalia, Kosovo, Haiti and Iraq, where guerrilla attacks could come anywhere and anytime.
So in other words, the Army just figured that there would never be a situation where they would need to move troops in anything smaller than a Bradley at high speed under fire — or, if they did, they figured that those troops could wait until their HMMWVs were replaced with something more tough, like… Strykers!
Unfortunately, events in the real world don’t wait for some light bird colonel’s procurement timeline:
In the days before his death, Private First Class John D. Hart called his father to tell him how unsafe he felt riding around Iraq in a Humvee that lacked bulletproof shielding or even metal doors.
It would be the last conversation Brian T. Hart would have with his 20-year-old son. On Oct. 18 near Kirkuk, Saddam Hussein loyalists ambushed his son’s Army convoy, killing two. A hail of bullets felled the Bedford High School graduate while he fought from his Humvee.
The worst part? The Pentagon already knew that unarmored HMMWVs were a disaster waiting to happen in an urbanized guerrilla conflict — thanks to their performance in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, when Humvees were torn up by small-arms and RPG fire from Somali insurgents:
[A]s far back as 1993, the military knew it might have a problem. Following the loss of 18 U.S. troops in Mogadishu, Somalia, that year, the Army and several other military institutions, including the Marine Corps Command College and the Army War College, undertook reviews of what had gone wrong. The headlines, of course, focused on poor strategic and command decisions — allowing a U.N. humanitarian operation to turn into a manhunt, failing to set up a rational working relationship between U.S. commanders and the U.N. command.
But the reliance on poorly armored or unarmored vehicles, including Humvees, was another lesson supposedly learned. One of the many official studies of the issue, a 1997 paper by Maj. Clifford E. Day at the Air Command and Staff College in Alabama, concluded the reliance on soft-skinned Humvees “needlessly put their troops in harms way without the proper equipment to successfully complete the mission.”
So either nobody in DoD procurement bothered to read Major Day’s report in the six years between Mogadishu and Baghdad, or — more likely — DoD fell victim to the same flowers-and-candy triumphalist mentality that blinded so many other war hawks. Sure, they may have needed armored Humvees in Somalia, but this isn’t gonna be anything like Somalia, man! It’s gonna be like Paris in 1944, you know?
And the worst part is, PFC Hart isn’t coming home, and those troops riding around in Strykers and soft-skin HMMWVs are still saying prayers before going out patrol every morning, and billions of dollars are being poured down the drain on vehicles that risk lives rather than protecting them — and none of the idiots who are responsible for all that will suffer for it. Nobody in the Pentagon will lose their commission, or get sent to Nome for the rest of their career. Nope, it’s just Business As Usual in the Pentagon procurement business. And PFC Hart isn’t coming home.