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The $5,347 rock; how I almost sold the Pentagon a manually launched, visually guided, igneous antitank weapon.

The $5,347 Rock

On September 30, 1987, a story appeared in The Seattle Times that told of problems the General Accounting Office identified with the Army's new M72A3 anti-tank weapon, a shoulder-mounted bazooka. "A battlefield GI has only one chance in ten of hitting his target" with this weapon according to the story. Worse, even if he hit his target, "the odds are it won't do any damage to a tank but will only expose the GI's position." In an Army war game, two-thirds of the soldiers who fired this weapon were "killed" by enemy counterfire. Rather than suspecting enemy chicanery, or weapons acquired second hand from the army of Fredonia, the Army was planning a new high-energy warhead for the bazooka, which was designed in Norway and manufactured by the Hesse Eastern Co. of Brockton, Massachusetts. If the new warhead works, it is expected to increase the effectiveness of the weapon to "more than three shots in ten."

It apparently will not help the exposure problem, but that exists with the Army's heavier, more effective anti-tank weapons too. The "Dragon" and the "Tow" are both wire-guided, requiring the person who fires it to stand in view of the tank while the missile streaks towards its target. The Scripps Howard story reported that "Internal Pentagon estimates, based on recent war games, show that up to a third of the GIs using Dragons will be killed by enemy counterfire after firing their missiles, while as many as 85 percent of those firing TOW missiles will die in enemy counterfire." Could Oliver North have known what he was doing in selling TOWs to Iran?

The Rock Island line

With these problems in mind, I wrote to Senator Dan Evans, a moderate Republican who was critical of some of Reagan's defense policies and who has now left the Senate. My letter proposed a Manually Launched, Visually Guided, Igneous Anti-tank Weapon, dubbed MLVG21AW17 for short. I wrote that my proposed ordnance "admittedly won't do much more damage to an enemy tank than the present M72A3s, but they do have several advantages. It is less likely to expose the G.I.'s position, is much lighter, has at least a 50-50 chance of hitting the target when properly launched, and I can let the Army have them for only $5,347 each...." In case no one got the point, I added: "In fact, I have a big pile of them sitting out in the backyard."

No one got the point. Instead of the appreciative response from the senator I hoped for, sharing my amusement at a weapon that appeared to be more dangerous to its gunners than to enemy tanks, and expressing a determination to monitor the defense budget more closely as a result, or a routine reply thanking me for my views and promising to keep them in mind, I received a letter that said:

"Thank you for your recent letter regarding a replacement for a new anti-tank weapon.

"I have contacted the appropriate government officials regarding this matter and as soon as I receive a reply I will be in further contact with you."

Surely, I thought, the appropriate government official would reply to Senator Evan's aide with some reference to satire or perhaps rebuke a smart-aleck who was wasting his valuable time, but instead, a few weeks later, came another letter over the senator's signature that said: "In response to my inquiry, I have received the enclosed reply from the Department of the Army."

The reply said that, "The information supplied by Mr. Richard has been forwarded to the U.S. Army Armament, Munitions, and Chemical Command, Rock Island, Illinois." Rock Island? Were they catching on? I was asked to send additional technical information as well as the names of people associated with the proposal, and "the proposed price, description of the organization, previous experience in the field, and facilities to be utilized."

In the best bureaucratic jargon I could manage, I wrote a two-page "valid unsolicited proposal" that finessed the question of other people associated with the project, reiterated the apparent need for such a weapon and its advantages vs. the M72A3, and said: "The price will depend upon the size and number ordered, but I estimate it should be $35 each F.O.B. Seattle in minimum lots of 100 for the manually launched version." As far-fetched as it still seemed, the idea that the Army was really going to buy rocks from me was beginning to take on an unanticipated life of its own. I could not keep from thinking of ways to enhance the proposal. "Decoration and packaging," I went on, "are extra. If this charge is not high enough, the price can of course be raised, and cost overruns are to be expected."

I would have to go back to my Boy Scout days to find any relevant experience, unless skimming rocks on a lake would count, but I pointed out that the weapon itself has a long tradition and that its production required only unskilled labor.

I sent this reply off in late February and as the weeks went by, my apprehension grew. Was some guy from the Army going to come to my door and punch me in the mouth, or worse, put me at the wrong end of an M72A3? (And which is the wrong end of an M72A3?) I couldn't believe they were really taking this seriously! I could see some team of weapons experts trying to unravel the mysteries of this new weapon, perhaps planning to sell the idea to TRW or McDonnell Douglas. Still more weeks passed, and I convinced myself that someone at Rock Island must have finally gotten the joke and trashed my not-so-valid but certainly unsolicited proposal Then a letter arrived! It was ominous.

Middle Eastern middlemen

After acknowledging receipt of my letter, and enclosing it, the Chief of the Programs, Policy, and Control Division at Rock Island wrote: "I have enclosed the envelope in which it was mailed. Notice the red stamp `The Enclosed Has Been Found Loose in the mails at Terminal Annex, 98134.'" The chief also wrote that his office had no record of receiving my original proposal. If the Russians start throwing rocks at our tanks, clearly loose security at the Post Office is to blame. The chief then recommended that I resubmit my proposal to the Army Armament, Research, Development, and Engineering Center at Picatinney Arsenal in New Jersey, where security, presumably, is tighter. Noticing that no one blinked at my mention of cost overruns, and hence tantalized by the thought of obscene profits, I complied.

This time the response came from the Unsolicited Proposals Coordinator at Picatinney Arsenal: "You may wish to submit an unsolicited proposal to this office. To assist you in preparing your proposal, enclosed is the pamphlet AMC-P 70-8." But he also advised me that this "should not be construed as an invitation to expend effort in the preparation of an unsolicited proposal and does not represent a commitment by or for this center or the U.S. Army."

The 69-page pamphlet was full of useful advice, as well as the addresses of the various army laboratories where new weapons systems are tested. It also set out a list of criteria, all of which had to be met for a proposal to be considered. One was that the proposal had to be "innovative, unique, and have military application." The problem was that while my proposed weapon had military application, it was hardly unique. I was between an anti-tank weapon and a hard place.

For days, with visions of government-paid country club memberships and secret deals with Middle Eastern middlemen dancing in my head, I contemplated some new and unique variation on the rock. I could think of none.

Maybe they would buy it if I stamped on each rock: "Pay no attention to that soldier behind the tree."
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Author:Richard, Jerome
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1989
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