when the dust clears

Words about and images of matters political, social, and military

De-fense! The Force Protection Equipment Demonstration 2009

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A portly, middle-aged white man in a purple polo shirt, conservative slacks, and a white baseball cap strides to a lectern positioned improbably on the side of a narrow dirt road. Behind him, there is a grass field dotted with brown dirt patches and ersatz shed-like structures.

The man faces several dozen people seated on bleachers, which are shielded from the strong Virginia sun. They talk softly, politely, in anticipation of the event to come.

The man fiddles with the lectern’s microphone, stuffs plastic foam plugs into each ear, and then glances down at his wristwatch.

A sizable BOOM ruptures the calm. Even the man flinches, and he knew what was coming. A trail of black smoke drifts toward him and dissipates magically, just inches from his head, like a perfectly planned Hollywood special effect.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, good afternoon,” the man says into the microphone. “Now that I have your attention…” And indeed he did.

There were dozens more explosions during the three-day Force Protection Equipment Demonstration held in May at Marine Corps Base Quantico. U.S. Marine explosive experts detonated charges around and under traffic barriers, laminated windows set in steel frames, wall panels—objects engineered to mitigate the deadly blast effects from exploding bombs and other weapons.

The observers in the stands were a mix of vendors and potential buyers. Among the latter were representatives of all branches of the armed services as well as local, state, and Federal emergency management officials.

After the final detonation, sellers and shoppers streamed across the field to inspect the damage to the various products—Hesco Bastions, “BABS” ballistic absorption barriers, bright orange Yodock barricades, and many others. Intense, jargon-laden conversations ensued about fragmentation and standoff distances and were continued later in the day at the exposition’s main site, the Stafford County Regional Airport.


“There are five ways of attacking with fire. The first is to burn soldiers in their camp,” the military strategist Sun Zi wrote centuries ago with brutal clarity.

Contemporary military commanders (and politicians) talk about “taking the fight to the enemy.” “Force protection” is what you need when your adversary brings the fight to you.

The Pentagon defines force protection as “actions taken to prevent or mitigate hostile actions against Department of Defense personnel (to include family members), resources, facilities, and critical information.”

That working definition sets the parameters for the biannual Force Protection Equipment Demonstration—no tanks, fighter aircraft, or missiles. “FPED” is about comparatively dull protective systems—blast-resistant materials, surveillance cameras, explosives detection devices, robotic vehicles, night-vision gear, and unmanned aerial vehicles. That said, there are lethal items on display, such as remotely operated machine guns, but FPED’s focus is defense rather than offense.

It’s hard to get a handle on the exact amount the Defense Department spends on force protection. The 2010 Defense budget request submitted to Congress allots $15.2 billion in additional funds for force protection measures overseas. This includes money for body armor and blast-resistant vehicles for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it doesn’t represent the undoubtedly staggering cost of incorporating mandatory force protection into all new construction and renovation of government facilities where DoD personnel will live or work.

It’s safe to say that the sums devoted to force protection have grown quite large over the years, which explains why many of the biggest defense contractors—Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, SAIC, General Dynamics, Honeywell, L-3 Communications—attended the equipment expo.

One example: Hesco Bastion Ltd., makers of the wire mesh and cloth barriers that are ubiquitous around U.S. bases and installations in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been doing business with the DoD since 1989, according to the U.S. government’s Central Contractor Registration. In September 2007, the Defense Logistics Agency awarded Hesco a $710 million contract for barriers to be used by the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. In December of that year, Hesco got another $195 million contract for defensive walls. An $800 million contract from the DLA followed in 2008. Other U.S. government departments as well as individual states also purchase products from Hesco.

The company’s owner, Jimmy Heselden, is a former coal miner from Yorkshire, England, who now ranks 261 out of 2000 on the Times of London’s list of wealthiest Britons and Irish, with roughly $398 million. Of course, the heads of major U.S. defense contractors do quite well, too. Ronald Sugar, CEO of Northrop Grumman, which displayed its robotic vehicles and physical security systems at FPED, had a base salary of $1.5 million in 2008. His total calculated compensation, however, was $17 million, which includes options, restricted stock awards, and other goodies.


FPED’s roots are in a deadly terrorist attack—but not September 11. On June 25, 1996, a late-model car pulled into the parking lot of Khobar Towers, housing for international troops working with the Saudi Arabian National Guard, in Dharan. The driver flashed his headlights, a signal to a fuel truck to roll into the lot.

A trio of American security officers watched, according to investigation reports, and immediately put two and two together: truck bomb. They started evacuating the building and managed to alert residents on the top three floors of the eight-story building when the bomb detonated.

The massive explosion ripped open the building’s north wall. Nineteen airmen from the 4404th Wing (Provisional) of the U.S. Air Force were killed. Five hundred others were injured.

The Khobar Towers bombing was not a bolt from the blue. Just a few months earlier, a car bomb at a U.S. military training center in Riyadh had killed five Americans and two Indians who worked there.

But the brazen and grievous Khobar attack riveted U.S. policymakers, senior military commanders, and the American public. A task force investigating the bombing led by a former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command issued a report that stated, “There are no published Department of Defense physical security standards for force protection of fixed facilities…. Force protection requirements had not been given high priority for funding.” In other words, steps could have—and should have—been taken beforehand that most likely would have limited casualties, even if the attack couldn’t have been prevented.

Talk turned to action at a speed rarely seen in Washington. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Shalikashvili, green-lighted FPED, an equipment exposition where companies and inventors, great and small, would demonstrate protective equipment for troops and installations. If ordered by a service, the contractor was required to deliver the system within 90 days of the expo. This need for speed put the focus on “COTS”—commercial off-the-shelf technology—and not systems extruded from the glacially slow and costly defense procurement system.


I attended the second FPED in 1999. I was a staff writer at Fortune, recently hired and hunting for a beat to call my own. I had covered the military as a photojournalist and dealt with defense attachés as Beijing correspondent for US News. As a result, I had a Rolodex full of military contacts.

But I also had a profound interest in how policymakers use military force—or threats of force—to achieve political objectives. On the one hand, elected officials proved to be averse to the prospect of American casualties and the possibility of a foreign intervention devolving into a Vietnamish quagmire. (Polls show that American voters don’t like quagmires.) Yet many of these same officials easily became besotted with the notion that military force can be used with scalpel-like precision to achieve positive outcomes in foreign lands. As Madeleine Albright put it so famously in a debate about the conflict in the Balkans to General Colin Powell, who quoted her in his memoirs, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

“I thought I would have an aneurysm,” Powell wrote. “American GIs were not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global gameboard.” Would that the he had remembered his words years later as he dutifully beat the Iraq war drum before the U.N. Security Council.

This seeming schizophrenia—military intervention good, body bags bad—was hardly unique to the Clinton era, but it seemed particularly pronounced. America’s bloody departure from Somalia was still fresh in the collective national memory, as was the president’s decision not to intervene in the Rwandan genocide. The brutal wars raging in the former Yugoslavia were headline news. On top of all this was the charged atmosphere in Washington. Bill Clinton’s very Clintonness—his lack of military service, penchant for micromanagement, and tendency toward vacillation and compromise—amplified all debates over the use of military force.

Senior military commanders were stuck in a bind. Their “superb military” was increasingly being injected into all manner of volatile, sometimes deadly, “military operations other than war”—peacekeeping, peace enforcement, “forward presence activities,” crisis response, exclusion zone enforcement, and so on. And yet commanders were told to avoid American casualties at all costs. Force protection naturally ascended to a top slot on the list of military priorities.

Many in the military hated (and still hate) being used as global cops. Such missions, they said, degraded their warfighting capability. Some defense analysts believed force protection itself was being overemphasized to the detriment of accomplishing the mission.

“In its mission statement, the brigade responsible for one-fourth of Kosovo lists its foremost objective as ‘self-protection,’” Charles Hyde, a U.S Air Force major, wrote in 2000.

“Force-protection fetishism was on full display during the Kosovo crisis of 1999,” wrote Jeffrey Record, professor of strategy, doctrine, and airpower at the U.S. Air War College, in 2000. “American behavior during that crisis reflected a desperate unwillingness to place  the satisfaction of U.S. armed intervention’s political objective ahead of the safety of its military instrument.”

It’s hard these days to find someone who speaks publicly of “force-protection fetishism,” but such thinking is now embedded in our policy. September 11 changed everything. The tremendous loss of life and the national wound it caused made the military sacrosanct, its missions inherently right and justified, even if we didn’t—and still don’t—understand the rationale behind them. The enormous protests against the Iraq War notwithstanding, our collective ability to consider the consequences of our global engagements was diminished or destroyed by our pain—and its exploitation by the Bush administration. Now, the deployment of troops whose primary job is, arguably, to protect themselves—there are still 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, just not in cities—barely raises American eyebrows.
Fundamentally, the schizophrenia that has characterized the American approach to military intervention hasn’t been examined or treated. Rather, it has been accepted as a chronic condition, which we medicate with distractions and struggle to ignore.


Getting vendors to talk to me at FPED in 2009 was as easy as it was ten years earlier. After all, they had products to flog.

A young man in wraparound shades bent a hinged, plastic device shaped like a rifle into an L. He then stepped behind a piece of cardboard taped to a tent pole and aimed the business end of his “weapon” over the pretend wall at me, the putative bad guy for his demo. The “shooter” was demonstrating Corner Shot, a contraption made from “high-impact polymer” that can be fitted with a firearm and a tiny camera. The bendy joint in the middle allows the user to fire around a corner, protected. Nifty, and more than a little scary in a Terminator sort of way. The Israeli military, which Corner Shot was designed for, swears by it, he assured me.

After a ballistics demonstration in 1999, retired Army colonel and defense analyst John Alexander patiently answered my questions and discussed current events in Kosovo. In separate conversations, a Navy lieutenant involved in fleet security at Naval Station Norfolk and an Army staff sergeant who served as a military policeman at West Point walked me through the history of force protection.

“What this show does,” a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel told me then, is “assist in identifying a 60, 70, or 80 percent solution, which might not fully protect soldiers in the field but certainly provides a stopgap—immediate protection for your force. An 80 percent solution is better than nothing. We certainly look for a 100 percent solution through traditional acquisition.”

Ten years later, uniformed military personnel—and even prior military—were decidedly less open to conversation. Captain Mark Ruiz spoke warily about his reasons for coming. “I work for the Florida National Guard Force Protection office in St. Augustine, and I’m here to see the equipment and the force protection demonstrations, like the blast protection—the windows and the barriers and all that stuff.” His commanders dispatched him to FPED to observe and report back, he said.

“I can’t talk about that,” deputy project manager for the Army’s force protection systems (and a former soldier) John Moneyhun replied when I asked about the value of the biggest contracts inked after FPED. “I don’t feel comfortable talking about that.”

Interview rejections came one after another, from soldiers, Marines, and airmen, over my two full days at the event.

“Hmmm, “a British officer wearing a flight suit murmured when I requested a brief interview.

“How about, No!” he barked at me before storming away.



Written by bxpnyc

2009/09/01 at 03:05

Posted in Uncategorized

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