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Stryking Out A General, GM and the Army's Latest Tank

A General, GM and the Army’s Latest Tank

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

On December 10, two Strykers, the Army’s newest armored personnel carrier, were patrolling near Balad, Iraq, when the embankment beneath them collapsed and the vehicles plunged into a rain-swollen river. Three soldiers died and another was severely injured. Three days later, another Stryker rolled over a roadside bomb south of Baghdad. The explosion left one soldier injured and the vehicle in flames.

It was an inglorious combat debut for the Army’s first new personnel carrier in thirty years. But it confirmed the worst fears of some of the Stryker’s critics that the vehicle is unsafe and its crews untrained for using it in combat conditions. One former Pentagon analyst described the 8-wheeled vehicle as "riding in dune buggy armored in tinfoil."

The Stryker Interim Armored Vehicle is billed as the Pentagon’s latest weapon in its new high-tech Army, a fast moving carrier designed for the urban battlefield and unconventional wars. This fall the Army deployed 300 Stryker vehicles and 3,500 soldiers to Iraq’s notorious Sunni Triangle, the Iowa-sized area in central Iraq where the most intense guerrilla fighting is taking place.

But new documents reveal that Pentagon weapons testers had expressed serious reservations about the whether the Strykers were ready for battle. The Pentagon’s chief weapons tester, Tom Christie, warned in a classified letter to the Secretary of the Defense that the Stryker is especially vulnerable to rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices. These are, of course, precisely the kinds of threats faced by the Stryker brigades now in Iraq.

Advertised as rapid deployment vehicles, the Stryker brigades could in theory be rushed anywhere in the world within 96 hours by C-130 transport planes. But numerous internal studies have questioned whether the Stryker can be deployed by C-130s at all. Moreover, a newly released Government Accounting Office report scolded the Pentagon for a host of other problems with the carrier, which was meant to replace the much-maligned Bradley Fighting Vehicle. The GAO report points to serious problems with the Stryker’s design and maintenance and discloses deficiencies in training for its use.

Even Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wanted to delay funding of additional Stryker brigades until more testing and training could be completed. But congress, ever an anxious to spread the pork around to as many districts as possible, didn’t heed the warning and approved the additional purchases.

The Stryker is a joint venture of two of the mightiest industrial corporations in America: General Dynamics and General Motors. These companies waged a fierce two-year long lobbying battle, stretching from Capitol Hill to the halls of the Pentagon, to win the $4 billion contract to build 2,131 Strykers, which was awarded in November 2000.

The first Strykers, which cost $3 million a piece, rolled off the assembly line in April 2002. Presiding over the ceremony at the Stryker rollout in Alabama was former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki. The Stryker was a key component in Shinseki’s plan to upgrade the Army, a scheme he outlined in a 1999 paper titled "Army Vision." In that report, Shinseki called for the development of an interim armored brigade featuring "all-wheel formation". This was a thinly veiled hint that the contract would be awarded to General Dynamics. The Stryker is a wheeled carrier, as opposed to the tank-like vehicles built by United Defense which run on tracks.

During Shinseki’s speech in Alabama, he pointedly singled out for special thanks David K. Heebner. Heebner, a former Army Lt. General, had been one of Shinseki’s top aides, serving as Assistant Vice Chief of Staff for the Army. As such, he played a key role in pushing for funding for Shinseki’s projects, including the Stryker. In November 1999, General Dynamics issued a press release announcing that they had hired Heebner as an executive at the company. The announcement came a full month before Heebner’s official retirement date of December 31, 1999. The timing of the announcement is curious for several reasons. Most glaringly, it’s clear that the Army was leaning toward handing a multi-billion dollar contract to General Dynamics at the very time Heebner may have been in negotiations with the company for a high-paying executive position.

Federal conflict of interest laws prohibit government employees from being engaged "personally or substantially in a particular matter in which an organization they are negotiating with, or have an agreement with for future employment, has a financial interest." It’s not clear if Heebner recused himself from the negotiations with General Dynamics over the Stryker contract. However, it’s very clear that the Stryker deal, despite the reservations raised by Pentagon weapons testers and the GAO, proved to be very lucrative for both Heebner and General Dynamics. Off the strength of the Stryker deal, Heebner quickly rose to the rank of Senior Vice-President for Planning and Development for General Dynamics, the conduit between the nation’s number two defense contractor and the Pentagon. By the end of last year, Heebner amassed more than 13,600 shares of General Dynamics stock valued at more than $1.2 million. "Based on the circumstances surrounding General Heebner’s hiring and compensation, and internal Pentagon warnings about the Stryker’s vulnerability, further investigation of the Stryker program is required," says Eric Miller, a senior defense investigator at the Project on Government Oversight.

This is the latest in a string of Pentagon scandals involving former Defense Department staffers who pushed for high-ticketed weapons programs, then cashed in by joining the very companies that were awarded with the contracts. Last year, POGO and CounterPunch exposed a sweetheart deal between Boeing and the Pentagon involving the leasing of 21 Boeing tankers to the Air Force. The chief broker of the deal was Darleen Druyun, who helped craft the scheme while working as deputy assistant secretary for Air Force acquisition and management , then lobbied congress to approve it as an executive at Boeing. Facing allegations of fraud and inside dealing, Boeing fired Druyun in December.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is co-editor of CounterPunch and author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature.