Losing the leader of the packs
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  1. #1

    Cool Losing the leader of the packs

    Issue Date: December 15, 2003

    Losing the leader of the packs
    Marines like this rucksack best. But you’ll be wearing a cheaper pack instead

    By Gordon Lubold
    Times staff writer

    Compare the new rucksack you’re getting early next year to the maligned MOLLE pack that failed Marines in combat, and it sure looks like a winner.
    But in the rush to replace your ruck without breaking the bank, the Corps pushed aside a contender that fared better in testing and won the favor of fleet Marines.

    In six months of head-to-head tests, two packs based on commercial designs proved their superiority to MOLLE, but Marine Corps Systems Command documents obtained by Marine Corps Times show that one was the better pack — the one the Corps rejected.

    Criteria used by Systems Command to rate the rucks — one made by Bianchi International, of Temecula, Calif., and the other designed by Arc’Teryx Equipment Inc. of Vancouver, British Columbia — included evaluations by field Marines, results of “biometrics testing” (think the “40-foot-drop test”) and cost.

    The winner would go home with a contract to make 162,700 packs —enough to supply nearly every active-duty Marine.

    The two contenders fared equally well in biometrics testing, the documents show. But in the field-user evaluations by rank-and-file Marines, the Bianchi pack came out ahead. The Arc’Teryx pack, meanwhile, came in with a price tag that was about 27 percent lower, according to Systems Command estimates.

    You’re getting the cheaper one.

    Marines pick a pack

    MOLLE’s resounding failure in combat in Afghanistan in late 2001 set the Corps scrambling to find a replacement.

    In the summer of 2002, Corps senior officials scrapped the military-designed MOLLE after complaints that the external frame broke at rates as high as 15 percent in some units, and that the equipment was so complicated some Marines needed an instructional video to put it together.

    Systems Command went to the retail market for a replacement, reviewing a dozen candidates before choosing the Arc’Teryx and Bianchi packs as finalists.

    Bianchi, known for its commercially available packs manufactured by subsidiary Gregory Mountain Products, is one of the companies that supplies the Marine Corps with 9mm pistol holsters. Because Arc’Teryx is a Canadian company, it partnered with Propper International of St. Charles, Mo., one of the companies that manufactures the Corps’ combat utility uniform.

    The Arc’Teryx pack won approval, landing the company a $58 million contract — a per-pack cost of $355, Systems Command officials said. The officials declined to discuss Bianchi’s price other than to say it was about 27 percent higher overall, at $74 million. But sources familiar with the selection process dispute those figures, saying the price difference is far lower.

    Regardless, Bianchi’s pack was more expensive. But the Systems Command documents show Marines rated it the better ruck.

    Using the MOLLE pack as a baseline with which to compare the other two packs, Systems Command put the rucks to the test. A total of 2,400 packs, or about 800 of each, went to Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and Camp Pendleton, Calif., and on Okinawa and Hawaii. When Marines from those bases deployed for the war in Iraq, the packs even got a combat test.

    In field-user evaluations based on their experiences, Marines failed the MOLLE pack and gave good ratings to both commercial rucks.

    But it was Bianchi that quickly emerged as the ruck king.

    That pack received a 96 percent “favorability rating” from Marine testers, while the Arc’Teryx scored an 87 percent rating, the documents state. That overall rating indicates the degree to which Marines favored each ruck, a score derived from its performance in 25 criteria, including durability, reliability, comfort and convenience.

    The winning Arc’Teryx pack failed to meet four of those criteria outright and only partially met two others. The Bianchi fully met all but two criteria, failing one and partially meeting another.

    In particular, Marines liked the simplicity of the Bianchi pack and its similarity to the MOLLE system, said a field-grade Marine officer who tested the packs.

    The differences between the two packs are even more striking when the 25 criteria are broken down into the 92 questions Marine field-testers answered. The Bianchi came out ahead in 73 of the 92 questions. Arc’Teryx won 16 of the categories. Three ended in ties or in favor of MOLLE.

    The project manager for Systems Command’s Combat Equipment Support Services, Lt. Col. Gabe Patricio, oversaw the pack evaluation process and outlined their performance in a July 14 memo.

    In that document, he wrote that “the Bianchi pack was determined to be the more effective candidate system, with an overall approval in the [field-user evaluation] of 96 percent and the [Arc’Teryx] at 87 percent and current MOLLE scoring at 57 percent.”

    But Patricio stressed in the memo that field-user evaluations weren’t intended to evaluate the packs against one another, but rather against the MOLLE pack. And both proved they outclassed the current pack.

    While the Arc’Teryx ruck did not meet four criteria, Patricio wrote, it “is operationally effective based on comment from test unit commanders and their staff.”

    The decision came as a shock to some, according to three sources familiar with the selection process, because the Bianchi pack so clearly outclassed the Arc’Teryx entry.

    “When the down-select was made, I was surprised it was Propper,” said one source, who is not affiliated with either company. “I really thought Bianchi was going to bring it home.”

    Despite Bianchi’s strong performance early on, Corps officials say, changes made by the companies after the field evaluations turned the tide in favor of Arc’Teryx.

    From hero to zero

    Halfway through the tests, conducted from January to June, Systems Command officials met with company representatives to discuss each pack’s weaknesses, said Capt. David Pinion, who was the officer in charge of the MOLLE replacement project through the selection phase.

    Systems Command raised eight concerns with the Arc’Teryx pack and five concerns with the Bianchi pack, according to a Systems Command memo dated July 8.

    The Bianchi ruck’s mortar round pouches were deemed insufficient, while the Arc’Teryx pack was too tall and restricted the wearer’s movement, for example.

    The companies were not directed specifically on how to address the concerns, said Pinion, an infantry officer who now is a student at the Expeditionary Warfare School at Quantico, Va.

    Given the tremendous performance of the Bianchi pack during Marine testing, Pinion said he and others thought Bianchi had the contract in the bag.

    But when the companies returned with new packs meant to address the command’s concerns, officials were surprised to find Bianchi had given them a completely different pack, Pinion said.

    “Their final proposal was very, very different from what we tested and had some significant weaknesses in it,” Pinion said.

    “Bianchi was at the one-yard line. All they had to do was walk this thing in, but they fumbled.”

    Arc’Teryx, on the other hand, had come from behind and made dramatic improvements, said Pinion and another officer involved in the pack project.

    In fact, said Capt. David Hunt, who was Marine Corps Combat Development Command’s pack requirements officer, Bianchi’s revised entry was so different that, if the company had presented it to them at the outset, it might never have made the first cut.

    “They came in with something that was totally different,” Hunt said.

    But according to the evaluation documents, Systems Command’s only concern with the redesigned Bianchi ruck was with the mortar pouches, which still had problems.

    Systems Command officials did not like Bianchi’s original design for the mortar pouches, which were detachable and designed to carry either 60mm or 81mm mortar rounds. In its redesign, Bianchi attached them permanently on the sides of the pack.

    But that change quickly took Bianchi out of the running.

    Systems Command officials first told company officials the reason their pack was rejected was because the new pouches added too much volume to the ruck, a source said.

    But command officials changed their minds, and instead told the company the redesigned pouches restricted the wearer’s arm movement.

    “This is a significant weakness,” the final report said.

    Anything that would restrict mobility is a significant weakness, said one Marine who tested the Bianchi ruck in Iraq. But features like deluxe mortar-round pouches are not critical to Sgt. Maj. David Howell, sergeant major of 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines at Twentynine Palms, Calif.

    “I’m not overly impressed with whistles and bells,” said Howell. “I think that as long as it’s where Marines can distribute the load and have room to pack it, they’re going to be happy with it.”

    Systems Command officials insist the field-user evaluation in which the Bianchi pack appeared to do so well is just “one piece of the puzzle,” and that biometrics testing at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass., was taken into consideration, as were cost issues.

    The biometric testing revealed weaknesses and strengths in each pack, but determined that both were viable options.

    That left price as the remaining factor — the area in which the Arc’Teryx-Propper team held an advantage.


  2. #2
    The price is right

    For their part, Systems Command officials say price was not weighed as heavily as other factors. “Technical capability is more important than past performance, and both past performance and technical capability combined are significantly more important than the price,” Systems Command officials wrote in an e-mail response to questions.

    But Bianchi officials suggest price had everything to do with the decision, and raised the issue in a letter to Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who represents the Southern California district in which the company is located. A copy of the letter was obtained by Marine Corps Times.

    The company complained in the letter that, when it came to price, the Corps was comparing apples to oranges because the Bianchi pack incorporated a more expensive hydration device than the one offered by Propper.

    Both companies were working with the Corps’ current hydration system provider, CamelBak Products, Inc., of Petaluma, Calif., but chose different CamelBak systems.

    The Bianchi pack included a system that can be used in a nuclear, biological or chemical environment, while the Arc’Teryx pack included one that is not NBC-compatible and is at least $20 cheaper.

    Systems Command officials said they could not comment on the types of hydration devices used with the packs.

    Low-cost production at Propper’s Puerto Rico facility also may have been a factor, the company contended.

    “Obviously, as a California company competing against low-cost production from Puerto Rico, we concede that we were not the low-price bidder,” the letter stated. Bianchi does not plan to protest the decision, however.

    “While we will certainly continue to support the Marine Corps and other DoD agencies with the finest equipment available, we are very disappointed with the Marine Corps decision and more importantly, how certain aspects of the decision were made,” Bianchi officials wrote.

    Bianchi officials declined to comment for this story, as did officials with Propper International. Tom Kellum, president of Propper, declined to comment, saying he was not familiar with the field-user evaluation data.

    Issa spoke with Marines about the pack during an exercise in California earlier this year and expressed concern about the issue in a statement e-mailed from his Washington office Dec. 5.

    “The Marines who field-tested the two competing packs liked the Bianchi pack best but their feedback was apparently overridden by later confusion in the contracting process,” he wrote. “The decision-making process was clearly flawed and likely resulted in the selection of an inferior product.”

    Rush to judgment?

    That’s partly because of the strict deadline officials were given to replace MOLLE.

    When MOLLE was junked in the summer of 2002, then-deputy commandant for plans, policies and operations Lt. Gen. Emil R. “Buck” Bedard said he wanted a new pack in a year’s time.

    Some balked at the short timeline.

    “I had asked for more time, and there was a compromise solution and we were given a year,” Hunt said. But in the end, they had more than enough time to do the job right, he added.

    “Bedard’s timeline, while ambitious, was absolutely doable,” Hunt said. “I didn’t know it was doable until after it was over, but it was doable.”

    Despite the results of the field-user tests, the field-grade officer who tested both packs believes the Arc’Teryx pack will stand by Marines in combat.

    “I’m comfortable with the redesigned Arc’Teryx pack because I believe all the detractions were taken into account with the redesign,” he said.

    Besides, the preferences of Marines can’t be the only factor in deciding on a new pack. The Corps ain’t a democracy.

    “I think choosing a pack is not a democratic process,” he said. “This wasn’t a vote.”




  3. #3

    Cool Not just about money

    Issue Date: December 15, 2003

    Not just about money

    The last time Marines got a new pack, it turned out to be a failure.
    Even after a major revamp, the military-designed MOLLE pack didn’t cut it when Marines needed it most: in combat.

    After that pack fell apart in Afghanistan in late 2001, the Corps finally put a bullet in MOLLE’s head and went out to the commercial market to find a replacement.

    But in hustling out a new rucksack to Marines ready to dropkick MOLLE, it looks like the Corps misfired yet again.

    This time, they’re giving short shrift to Marines’ opinions and bowing to a price tag.

    From a field of 12 contenders, Marine Corps Systems Command at Quantico, Va., selected two finalist packs.

    One was built by a partnership between Arc’Teryx Equipment Inc., of Vancouver, British Columbia, and Propper International, of St. Charles, Mo.

    The other was designed by Bianchi International, of Temecula, Calif.

    The Bianchi was the clear favorite of field Marines who tested it — and it was about $100 more expensive.

    So it was Arc’Teryx that got the nod, winning a contract to build 162,700 packs at $355 a copy, a cost to the Corps of about $58 million.

    To be sure, the Arc’Teryx pack is by no means a bad piece of gear. Both companies specialize in high-end backpacks and the field-user evaluations bear out their reputations. Their packs both leave MOLLE in the dust.

    So on the face, it makes sense to buy the cheaper pack and put the savings to good use elsewhere.

    But after MOLLE’s double failure, this isn’t about “the best pack for the best price” anymore.

    It’s about restoring Marines’ faith in their gear. And that’s worth an extra hundred bucks a pack.




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