When Will They Ever Learn?

DefenseWatch Editor Nat Helms' latest piece is an insightful, preliminary autopsy on the U.S. Army's latest acquisition newsmaker -- the Future Combat System (FCS). This disgraceful waste of public funds is competing for ink with another Army acquisition "success" -- the shameful failure to provide the "best available" body armor for our troops and the added insult by the Department of Defense (DOD) of not reimbursing those who bought the better commercially available body armor when the system could/would not provide same.

Here's just a partial list of the Army's major acquisition debacles that in the past 4 decades that I've watched it misfire time and time again:

n the Aquila (an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle that cost a billion and produced some great technology that the apparently more talented Israeli UAV industry transformed into operating capabilities);

n the Sgt. York Division Air Defense system (DIVAD);

n the Crusader (artillery system);

n the Comanche advanced attack helicopter

As in most matters of topical interest to today's US military, SFTT's founder, the late David Hackworth, had some relevant comments on the Army acquisition process.

In his memoir of the Army in the Cold War, About Face, Hack revealed some ugly truths about how and why the U.S. infantrymen of the Vietnam era were sent into combat with a rifle, of which it was well known, would be a disaster for America's Grunts. It's yet one more sad, dispiriting story, but ignoring it won't bring any pressure on today's Perfumed Princes to fix the severely dysfunctional Army acquisition process.

It's the early 1960's at Fort Campbell and Hack is assigned to the 101st Airborne. Here's his description:

"One morning General Cassidy [Assistant Division Commander] called me in and tossed me an all-metal rifle that looked about as lethal as a child's toy. 'Take this out and see what you think of it, Hack.' he said. To date, the AR-15, as the rifle was known, had been used as an Air Force survival weapon, but it seemed DA [Department of the Army] was considering arming Airborne units with it, too; with every pound counting in Airborne in terms of mobility and resupply, the recently issued M-14 was just too big, and it and its ammo too heavy, to make it an ideal paratroop weapon. The AR-15, on the other hand, was small and light, with lightweight ammo -- at first glance, exactly what was needed.

"I took the weapon out and pumped thousands of rounds through it in every conceivable situation an infantryman might find himself -- in sand, mud, cold, rain, and dense foliage as close to 'jungle' as I could get at Fort Campbell. I took it apart, put it together, fired it dirty, fired it clean. And whatever the situation, the AR-15 did one thing with consistency: it jammed. Far more than it fired. The weapon had serious teething problems. But, in my estimation, even if it went back to the drawing board and the Research and Development whiz kids ironed out some of its more glaring faults, the AR-15 would never be worth a pinch of salt as an infantry weapon. It just wasn't rugged enough. It wasn't GI-proof. The thing required almost surgical cleanliness (damn hard to achieve on a battlefield) and exacting maintenance that the average Airborne infantryman wasn't going to perform in a combat situation. The AR-15 looked good, but to me, sending a trooper into combat with it would be sending him on a suicide mission. (Italics in the original; bold font added.)

"I made my report to General Cassidy and to his boss, the wonderful 101st CG, Major General Harry Critz. After going over all my findings, the two men agreed with my conclusions and the official Division position was that the AR-15 was simply not an infantry/Airborne weapon. All of us felt that Material Command would get similar reports form the 82d, as well as from any groundpounder unit that got a sneak preview of this latest wonder gear; it was therefore an incredible surprise to find, two years later, that the rifle the 101st was issued to carry into battle in Vietnam was the ****-piece AR-15 down to the last detail, except that the new version had a stock and was called the M-16."

So, the Pentagon's "Corporate Headquarters" at Department of the Army in Washington (R.) ignored the input of the Army's best, most experienced close-combat warriors. The foreseeable, but evidently unimportant, consequence was that unknown thousands of America's Grunts died needlessly in the paddies and jungles of Southeast Asia. And it's no urban myth that more than a few died with an M-16 cleaning rod in their hands as they tried to make their M-16's operable.

Hack had seen one part of the Army's acquisition process for the M-16 at Fort Campbell (an abbreviated but effective "field test and evaluation" phase). By 1967, after his initial tours in Vietnam, he was back at Corporate Headquarters, and being ever the fighter, Hack was determined to re-visit the M-16 issue.

"Throughout this period at the hub of Army decision making, I also tried to rectify some of my pet hates, among them the M-16... An old paratrooper friend from Campbell was the action officer for the M-16 in the Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Force Development (ACSFOR). I went to see him and tried to persuade him to stand in the door over the weapon. Even though the system had endorsed it, he agreed with me that it was far too delicate for infantry, probably on any battlefield, much less in a jungle/rice paddy setting like Vietnam. But like most of us ticket-punching drones in the Pentagon, this action officer was very-career minded, and despite his being the person in the U.S. Army who could have made the difference, he couldn't bring himself to buck the system. As I was leaving the office, another guy even piped up, 'Don't fight it -- just buy Colt Industries.' And so the saga of the M-16 went on. Time would prove that one of the major problems wit the M-16 in the way years was its ammo, bought on the cheap by an Army cutting costs at the expense of its men's lives (and later, when the ammo situation was straightened out and the mammoth teething problems were addressed, the weapon did get better). But in the final analysis, that situation -- as obscene as it was -- was still secondary to the fact that the weapon was a worthless piece of junk that never should have gotten down to the troops to begin with." (Italics in the original.)

Somewhere in today's Corporate Headquarters sit a few hundred majors and lieutenant colonels in their Dilbert cubicles, the latest generation of "ticket punching drones," who are facing the same pressures Hack's buddy buckled to. Only this time the issue is not the crappy M-16, but it is body armor and up-armored HUMVEEs, and the Future Combat System.

The list is long and the subjects may be different, but what has not changed is that the Army acquisition system cannot produce the right gear, at the right time for those whose lives and limbs depend on this gear.

How many of America's Grunts will die, and die needlessly, because today's candidates for future designation as Perfumed Prince (or Princess) value their promotion prospects more than speaking truth to power?

The bottom line remains today, as it was in Hack's time, that America's Grunts are much less important along the E-ring corridors and on Capitol Hill than the feeding and caring for the Military Industrial Congressional Complex.

SFTT President 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 sfttpres@aol.com. Please send comments to DWFeedback@yahoo.com.