RoboReporter

How the Reg became a U.S. Army flack

On Jan. 19, The Orange County Register's editorial writers could barely contain their anger. The object of their fury: television network execs who "rolled over to the government's programming demands" for anti-drug messages.

In a deal that certainly stinks, the Reg noted network officials had applied for grants from the White House's anti-drug office. In exchange, the networks inserted insipid anti-drug messages into their already insipid programming. "[T]his kind of subterfuge is in some ways more sinister than direct censorship," the Reg fumed.

Ironically, three days earlier, that same paper allowed one of its reporters to play the role of flack for a Pentagon program that's hundreds of millions of dollars over budget, four years behind schedule and plagued by serious design flaws.

You'd never know any of that from technology reporter Dawn C. Chmielewski's "Dressed to Kill" story in the Jan. 16 Orange County Register. Indeed, the reporter's tone has such a golly-gee comic-book feel to it that—along with the accompanying color photos and graphic—it could have been put together by some Pentagon whiz kid.

The subject of Chmielewski's story is the Pentagon's suspect Land Warrior system—a computerized, armored battle suit straight out of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. Land Warrior is supposed to give each American infantryman the ability to communicate instantly by radio with other squad members or faraway headquarters, to see in blind conditions, and to look at the enemy hiding around corners or on parts of the battlefield miles away.

The only problem is that Land Warrior doesn't work. After $2.1 billion and four years of development, a recent government auditing report concluded, the system is plagued by clumsy technology, insufficient power, cost overruns and failed tests.

But don't bother the Reg with such noise.

"The Army brought its $125 million battle suit to the U.S. Army Reserve Center in Irvine Saturday to impress a bunch of teenage recruits," wrote Chmielewski. "They're all jealous because —for a while at least—the Land Warrior was mine. All mine."

Chmielewski went on to describe herself wearing the suit in terms only a gated-community soccer mom could love. "I start with a green camouflage vest, which, for comfort, has been stripped of its bullet-impervious Interceptor body armor. It fits like a corset. Snug. Bulge concealing. The perfect look for an Irvine mom, five months postpartum and still a bit, er, fleshy."

The reporter went on to don the entire suit, describing each part in cute, pie-eyed style.

And then, into battle: "Keeping my body flush against the corner of the reserve center's brick building, I take aim at an unsuspecting minivan," wrote Chmielewski. "I could have blown it to bits—if only I had arms like sides of beef."

Keep in mind Chmielewski is a reporter—not a PR flack. And that she's describing not a field-tested, proven weapon but an experimental suit that's so far spawned two Government Accounting Office (GAO) reports, both calling for more oversight of a program now sucking up 66 percent more than the $1.4 billion budgeted for it in 1996.

The program seeks only to produce 34,000 test suits—barely enough to equip two of the Army's 10 divisions. Those suits were to be ready for deployment this year; as a result of delays, they won't be available until 2004 at the earliest.

"The Army has not demonstrated that it can deliver workable Land Warrior prototypes that meet test requirements with the requisite safety and comfort to the soldier," was the conclusion to the most recent GAO report, released in December 1999. "Land Warrior is no closer to fielding today than it was when development began in January 1996."

Except in Irvine, of course.

The December GAO report is filled with examples of program troubles—some funny, but most simply pathetic. For instance, the Army has yet to address the Land Warrior's tremendous weight—the typical soldier carries 91 pounds of armor, supplies, ammunition and weapons, but the Land Warrior package itself weighs 90.5 pounds. In addition, GAO investigators found that soldiers trying to test the system suffered from the "turtle-on-its-shell effect"—foundering on the ground whenever they rolled over onto their backs.

Because of its bulk, Land Warrior failed an April 1998 airborne certification test. First the Army found a soldier couldn't safely wear the suit when parachuting, so they tried stuffing it into a bag and tying the bag to the soldier. The result of that was a tangled mess of suit, soldier and chute.

Needless to say, all of this was breezily dismissed by Chmielewski. The man who demonstrated the suit assured her that "the Land Warrior will shed considerable poundage before the Army distributes it to all 495,000 active duty soldiers."

Then there's the suit's electronics. Its "internal communications" are bad; to you and me, that means there's no way for a soldier wearing the suit to talk to his commander. The suit also failed an April 1998 electromagnetic interference test, when it was found the suit's emissions would scramble other nearby electronic devices. That same month also saw the failed water immersion test, in which "substantial leakage was observed in the interiors of many system components, including the squad radio, soldier radio, computer and Integrated Helmet Assembly Subsystem display components."

The suit's batteries—currently worn across the hips—are also a disaster. An ideal solution would allow Land Warrior soldiers to recharge at mobile generators, but that's not going to happen. Instead, each soldier has to carry his own batteries, which, instead of lasting the expected 12 hours, last barely five. Even if that changes, soldiers wearing Land Warrior will still consume batteries in the same copious quantities as rations or drinking water. No one yet knows how to supply batteries to soldiers in the field or how to dispose of spent batteries. The GAO report says more than half the Army's estimated $1.4 billion in suit-maintenance costs deals solely with batteries.

All of this makes Land Warrior seem the latest in a long line of high-hype, low-performance military hardware. In the 1980s, the system was Sergeant York —a radar-guided anti-aircraft vehicle designed to protect armored formations. That proved to be junk. In the early 1990s, even more money found its way into the Patriot missile, designed to shoot ballistic missiles out of the sky. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, despite hundreds of firings, Patriot accounted for no shootdowns.

Neither Chmielewski nor Reg editor Tonnie Katz would comment for this story. But clearly, for everyone but the Reg reporter, Land Warrior is a public-relations disaster. The Army's apparent solution—far from abandoning the program—is to drag the system around the country, letting gullible reporters play RoboReporter and write about how cool it is. So far, if the Register is any guide, the ploy is working.

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