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Army’s body-armor testing spurs debate

The military's heavy reliance on contractors to handle sensitive security work, such as testing of body armor, is drawing increasing scrutiny.
Image: Fred Chirranni tests body armor
Fred Chirranni, a ballistic range technician at H.P. White Laboratory, aligns body armor prior to testing  on May 5 in Street, Md. The testing will indicate whether or not an impact might lead to injuries behind the armor. Patrick Smith / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Stung by an internal audit that found troops were issued body armor that failed critical ballistic testing, Army officials canned the private laboratories they'd long relied upon for the tests and said they would do the vital job themselves.

Yet the Army appears to have simply swapped one set of contractors for another, a fact at odds with the service's contention the work is too important for the private sector to handle.

When it shifted testing to firing ranges at the service's Aberdeen Test Center in Maryland, the Army said that would allow it to tightly control the work and prevent miscues that can make troops doubt the quality of their equipment.

"It is a life-or-death situation, and you want to ensure that life-and-death situations are managed by the government," said Brig. Gen. Peter Fuller, head of the Army office that buys soldier gear. "We should have managed this from the very beginning."

But not mentioned in a February directive approving the shift, and in a subsequent memo to members of Congress, is the prominent role of Jacobs Technology, a technical services company with a $91 million Army contract to support the service's testing of vehicles and weapons.

The Aberdeen example illustrates the military's heavy reliance on contractors for a broad range of jobs, including sensitive tasks such as weapons program oversight, intelligence collection and analysis, communications, and security.

It's a habit Defense Secretary Robert Gates has vowed to break.

Outsourcing debate
One argument often cited for outsourcing government work is that it saves money. But the Government Accountability Office says that's not always the case — contractors can cost more than federal employees. And with too many hired hands, the Pentagon also risks losing control over and accountability for key program and policy decisions, the GAO says.

The numbers facing Gates are imposing: In 2000, just before the Bush administration came into office, there were 730,000 contract employees working for the Defense Department. By 2007, with two wars under way, there were 1,550,000, according to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Contractors now make up 39 percent of the department's work force, far too much for Gates' liking. He wants the figure cut to "the pre-2001" level of 26 percent over the next five years. The contract help will be replaced by full-time civil servants, he says.

Jacobs Technology is the dominant presence at the Aberdeen center, which is about 30 miles northeast of Baltimore. The company has had a contract to provide test support at the center since 2001.

More than 1,200 contractors work at the center and 1,100 of those are employed by Jacobs, said company spokeswoman Crystal Maynard. Jacobs is a subsidiary of the Jacobs Engineering Group, one of the world's largest engineering and construction firms.

They outnumber the 740 federal employees who work at the Aberdeen test center. There are 15 military personnel assigned there.

Sixty Jacobs employees are directly involved in the body armor testing, Maynard said.

Hired help
Although the Army has declared the testing work "inherently governmental," Maj. Gen. Roger Nadeau, the top officer at the Army Test and Evaluation Command, said there's no inconsistency in using hired help in a federal facility.

"That contractor, who works in a test lab, hired by the government to do government tests, is government," Nadeau said in an AP interview. "When I answer for what he or she says to me, that's a government answer. It's not a contractor answer."

But Alan Chvotkin, senior vice president of the Professional Services Council, a trade group, sees a major contradiction. "You can't say it's a critical government function and then have the work done by contractors," Chvotkin said.

The body armor used by most American forces consists of a ballistic vest with specially hardened ceramic inserts that protect most of the upper body from armor-piercing rounds.

The plates and vests go through demanding "first article tests" during the design phase. Later, after production begins, sample plates are shot at on ranges to ensure there has been no deviation from the specifications. These "lot acceptance tests" require a quick turnaround so manufacturers can keep their production lines moving.

Dave Reed of Ceradyne, a California company that makes about thousands of plates each month, says his business is now at greater financial risk because Aberdeen's testing takes too long and is more expensive.

The H.P. White Laboratory in Street, Md., one of the private labs ditched by the Army, would do a test in 24 hours; the Army lab takes three or four days, he said.

Cost to taxpayers
An internal Army e-mail indicates that fees for a first article test at Aberdeen range from $41,890 to $51,394. Eric Dunn, H.P. White's vice president, says his company can do the work better, faster, and for four to five times less money.

Nadeau refused to say how much the new arrangement would cost taxpayers. The testing at Aberdeen will be more extensive than it was in the commercial labs, he said.

The decision to move the testing to Aberdeen followed a report by Pentagon inspector general faulting the Army for not properly overseeing a series of tests done at H.P. White.

The Jan. 29 audit recommended that nearly 33,000 plates be pulled from the Army's inventory of nearly 2 million because the inserts might not provide troops with adequate protection. The Army disputed the findings, but withdrew the plates as a precautionary step.

Under the Army's new testing policy, H.P. White and other qualified private labs may be used if more capacity is required.

Not all of them will be around to help.

United States Test Laboratory, a private ballistics test lab in Wichita, Kan., says it will have to shut its doors unless the Army's decision is reversed.