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Trouble Is Our Business


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TROUBLE IS OUR BUSINESS

General Douglas MacArthur had it wrong: Old soldiers don't die or fade away--they go high tech. Some 2,000 of the nation's military elite have enlisted in a database owned by Military Professional Resources Inc. (MPRI) in Alexandria, Va. As Information Age mercenaries, they're doing everything from briefing Swedish troops on Operation Desert Storm to coaching U.S. officers on managing GIs.

The eight-year-old company, located within a Scud missile's range of the Pentagon, provides an array of services to clients domestic and foreign. With U.S. defense spending way down, the privately held concern estimates that overseas sales will account for nearly 40% of billings this year, helping double revenue, to almost $12 million. There are some risks to that growth strategy: Earlier this year, MPRI tactical expertise was credited with helping Croatia gain militarily against Bosnian Serbs. The company was also blamed for helping establish a worrisome new power in the Balkans.

Most consultants would exult in the spotlight, even if undeserved. Not MPRI. Company officials insist its Croatian contract--licensed by the State Dept.--was simply for sociology lessons on turning communist-trained soldiers into more democratic troops. "People think we're doing something we're not doing," fumes Harry E. Soyster, vice-president for international operations and former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Some analysts say he has a point: MPRI has too high a profile to run a covert operation that would violate the arms embargo in the Balkans, they contend.

SURPRISE TURN. The Pentagon has trained foreign officers for years, but privatizing and exporting U.S. military knowhow is a new twist. Classroom training may not be as swashbuckling as the forays of mercenaries. But "it's a real franchise, if you can find a customer," says Loren B. Thompson of the Alexis de Toqueville Institution, a conservative think tank.

Training foreign armies wasn't the plan when MPRI was launched in 1987. The company was the brainchild of a group of retired Army officers brought together by a consultant. Their mission: review a report on using computers to teach soldiers. The former generals had a field day making suggestions--and realized their military experience was a valuable commodity. Unlike some other Beltway consultants, they set out to sell "a bona fide product to the government," says Robert D. Wood, MPRI's chief operating officer.

These days, MPRI cruises cyberspace for new business opportunities offered by the Defense Dept. on the Internet. The hourly rates for the company's consultants are a trade secret, but they're a fraction of the $450 an hour Wall Street lawyers charge. That has helped MPRI snare a series of competitively bid Pentagon contracts for such things as writing field manuals and analyzing the cost-effectiveness of storage equipment.

To help expand the company's reach overseas, MPRI brought in Soyster and former Army Chief of Staff Carl E. Vuono, a mentor of Colin L. Powell and architect of the Army's modernized training regime. MPRI advertises in military journals for foreign clients.

THRIFTY MOVE. Woods admits the venture might never have been launched if its founders had foreseen the radical changes the defense business would undergo. But Soyster is confident that the company, which has grown from 5 to 165 full-time employees, can survive even more defense cuts. He figures it's a lot cheaper to hire gray-hairs from MPRI than to have the Pentagon fly in its own commanders--with their families--from Japan or Berlin. "You get the same or greater experience," he says. MPRI isn't exactly profit-gouging either: It expects travel costs and payments to specialists to limit profits to a minuscule $230,000 this year.

Of course, MPRI's success depends on Washington and other capitals having some cash to spend on its services. The company is betting that, like the old soldiers on its payroll, the global market for its information and experience won't fade away anytime soon.

FOR SALE: MILITARY KNOWHOW

Recent business for Military Professional Resources

TAIWAN AND SWEDEN Held seminars on Operation Desert Storm and the lessons to be learned from the U.S. victory over Iraq

CROATIA Designed courses for the armed forces on how to convert from the communist armed-forces model to a democratic one, including how the military should deal with elected civilian leaders and how officers should treat enlisted soldiers

PENTAGON Wrote manuals on such issues as joint tactical-missile defense and analyzed cost-effectiveness of an equipment-deployment and storage systemBy Stan Crock in Washington, with bureau reports


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