In a shocking example of fraud and shoddy workmanship, U.S. Army and Marine Corps troops were put in harm’s way by poorly manufactured military helmets, according to a newly issued government watchdog report.
Few pieces of equipment are as important to ground troops as helmets, which provide ballistic and impact protection and can be used as platforms for mounting sophisticated electronic devices. But as a new Justice Department Inspector General summary report documents, some military contractors cut corners, used degraded or unauthorized materials, and cheated on inspections as they produced next-generation combat helmets.
Beginning in 2006, the Defense Department began issuing multi-million-dollar contracts to Ohio-based ArmorSource for the production of tens of thousands of Advanced Combat Helmets that promised critical new safety features. ArmorSource, which opened its doors just the previous year, was one of four companies that won Army contracts for helmet production. Between 2006 and 2009, ArmorSource was paid more than $30 million for 125,052 helmets, which were produced by a subcontractor, Federal Prison Industries (FPI).
At the same time, ArmorSource snagged a lucrative contract to provide the Marine Corps with the Lightweight Marine Corps Helmet (LMCH), which provides even more protection.
The Army first revealed in 2010 that it was forced to recall 44,000 of its Advanced Combat Helmets, including some that were being used at the time by troops deployed in Afghanistan. The federal probe was prompted by complaints from whistle-blowers.
A joint investigation by the Justice Department IG, the Defense Criminal Investigation and some Army officials found that the helmets for the Army and the Marines had not been manufactured according to specifications and had numerous defects. They were made with degraded materials and had improper coatings and incorrect dimensions, all of which added to the risks of using the helmets.
The helmets were manufactured by federal prison inmates at the FPI facility in Beaumont, Texas. FPI is a wholly-owned government corporation that was established by statute and executive order in 1934 to provide work and educational opportunities to federal offenders who are paid for their labor.
While the intention is noble, the IG’s investigation revealed that supervisors and inmates engaged in widespread fraud in manufacturing the helmets. In some cases, inmates at the direction of FPI staff altered documents so that they “falsely indicated helmets had passed inspection and met contract specifications,” according to the report.
Moreover, the serial numbers on some of the helmets were altered to hide problems or confuse inspectors. And in some cases, helmets were pre-selected for inspection to insure they were improved by the inspectors. The Defense Contract Management Agency, which was responsible for overseeing the inspections, was woefully inadequate, according to the report. As a result, inspectors submitted reports falsely claiming that shipments of helmets had been adequately inspected.
In the end, 126,052 Advanced Combat Helmets were recalled, resulting in monetary losses to the government of more than $19 million. Separately, a shipment of 23,000 light-weight helmets for the Marine Corp was quarantined, and the remainder of the order was canceled.
Fortunately, the probe did not turn up any information indicating that military personnel sustained injury or death because of defective helmets.
The Department of Justice announced in March that it had reached a $3 million settlement with ArmorSource for making false claims about the helmets. According to the IG’s report, federal prosecutors decided against pressing criminal charges against either ArmorSource or the FPI manufacturing plant, but without explaining why.
The Washington Post on Wednesday quoted Peter Carr, a Justice Department spokesman, as saying that the department as a policy does not explain why it doesn’t file charges in a case. Paul Garcia, the chief contracting officer for ArmorSource, also declined to comment on the case, according to the newspaper, saying that it involved “old” issues.
It should be noted that ArmorSource announced in May that it had won another contract with the Marines Corps for 10,000 more military helmets.
"This is the third significant order ArmorSource has received from the U.S. Government since the beginning of 2016," Yoav Kapah, ArmorSource president & CEO, said in a statement at the time. "Needless to say, we are proud and excited about this and we see orders as a clear sign of the government's trust in ArmorSource, its employees, and its leading technology."