Technology

Operation: Leaf Blower


Small companies are coming up with creative ways to help U.S. troops survive

Leaf blowers, laser pointers, and speedboat hulls. Right now, they are the cutting edge in American military might.

Although the Pentagon has been a tireless advocate for high-tech superiority, the U.S. military is still struggling to defend soldiers in Iraq from roadside bombs and other low-tech improvisations by insurgents. So in response to this ever-evolving menace, the military is also trying to be more creative and less plodding in procuring the right battle gear.

The result? A lengthening list of unconventional weapons, including laser pointers warning Iraqi drivers to slow down before checkpoints and high-powered leaf blowers that can clear debris used to conceal explosives. "Everything we do is based on the enemy. And it's an adaptive, smart enemy," says Jerry Ferguson of the Army's Rapid Equipping Force, which aims to fast-track off-the-shelf equipment to the front lines. The unconventional items are the result of smart ideas that bubble up in the civilian sector. These ideas can often provide quick fixes for a brutal, fast-evolving battle zone—in the case of Iraq, one that has claimed 3,609 lives.

Finding New Applications

Exhibit A: The Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) program, launched in late 2006 by the Marine Corps amid mounting casualties from roadside bombs. Rather than design a whole new generation of armored vehicles itself, the Marines issued an appeal to both military and civilian contractors for quick, imaginative solutions.

The military has already ordered 3,765 armored trucks under this Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) program—more than half of them since May 31—and deliveries have begun. Some orders went to military vendors like BAE Systems, but nearly half are being filled by a South Carolina company that used to make speedboats, Force Protection Industries, a subsidiary of Force Protection (FRPT). The company adapted its V-shaped hulls for the underbelly of an armored truck, replacing the fiberglass with steel. Like a boat hull cutting through waves in the water, the steel hull deflects the shock waves and shrapnel from an explosion. Force Protection Industries had already shipped 600 of these Cougar trucks to Iraq before MRAP, and not a single occupant has died in more than 2 million operational hours, the company reports.

But production capacity and raw material supplies are a worry. On June 27, the Department of Defense inspector general criticized the military for relying on such a small company for so many MRAP vehicles, citing problems Force Protection has had meeting delivery deadlines. Force Protection says the report focused on the period between 2003 and 2005, when it was smaller. The company is now producing more than 100 vehicles a month and plans to expand capacity to 1,000 a month by July 2008 through a partnership with General Dynamics.

Evolving Products

Much of the impetus for such improvised weapons comes from the Rapid Equipping Force, a branch of the Army's Asymmetric Warfare Office. The REF was created after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, and was charged with developing quick solutions to problems on the front lines. The REF's budget has increased more than 50% to almost $200 million in the last two years, even as the military has been scaling back its commitment to advanced technology. The Army recently proposed cutting $3.3 billion from its Future Combat Systems, which is meant to link every combat unit through a high-speed data network. And after a $2 billion investment over the past decade, the Army killed the Land Warrior program, a plan to outfit soldiers with possibly burdensome computer and video equipment.

Meanwhile, companies that never pictured themselves as defense contractors have found ways to adapt and sell their products to the military. Many are using technological gadgets that have been around for years. The V-shaped hull concept used by Force Protection and other armored truck companies was developed in South Africa 30 years ago. The Army has announced its aim to buy more than 17,000 MRAP vehicles in the next two years, which could mean billions more in Cougar contracts if funding is approved.

The success of Force Protection, whose shares have tripled since MRAP launched, has also buoyed Michigan-based Spartan Motors (SPAR), a maker of fire trucks and ambulances that's building the Cougar's chassis. Rich Schalter, president of the Spartan Motors Chassis subsidiary, says the structural similarities between fire trucks and Cougars allow the company to churn out new chassis without heavily modifying its supply lines or production facilities.

Local Sellers

Far smaller companies have also found ways to make the military a client, often after being contacted by the REF. The unit, based in Fort Belvoir, Va., has branches in Iraq and Afghanistan. REF soldiers have the authority to make smaller purchases—say, for a few thousand dollars—using an Army credit card. They submit larger purchase requests to the office's headquarters.

One such request called for 80 industrial leaf blowers from Buffalo Turbine in Springville, N.Y. Iraqi insurgents sometimes bury improvised explosive devices under dirt and debris, so members of the REF devised a way to strap a leaf blower to the front of vehicles, making IEDs easier to spot. The company, which usually sells its equipment to golf courses, worked with the Army to make the blower's rotating nozzle more durable.

The REF has also reached out to a two-person company located in a suburban home near Portland, Ore. The company, Beam of Light Technologies, imports green lasers from Taiwan for civilian uses such as classroom teaching and bird-watching. Soldiers in Iraq found that green lasers, more visible than red lasers, deliver a more effective warning to oncoming motorists that they're approaching a checkpoint. The alternative, a few warning shots, was often mistaken as hostile fire, leading drivers to accelerate in fear and soldiers to open fire at what might be an attack. The REF reports that green lasers have enabled a 60% to 80% drop in aggressive driving at checkpoints.

Smart Spending

With the Iraq war costing more than $6 billion a month, the Pentagon has altered its buying habits. For example, Beam of Light's lasers cost $150 apiece, just a fraction of the $1,000 each the Army was initially paying. Beam of Light has sold more than 25,000 lasers to the military since 2003, with 3,000 more going out every month. "It's become the focus of our company," founder John Mueller says. Sales have jumped from $1.5 million in 2005 to $3 million last year, almost 60% of it coming from the military.

Other REF purchases include electronic devices that translate English into Arabic and bullhorn-siren combinations that are attached to the tops of vehicles. The office is also cutting electricity, air conditioning, and heating costs with more efficient generators and foam insulation for tents. The REF's first purchase was the Packbot, a robot designed to search Afghani caves for explosives. It was developed by iRobot (IRBT), the same company that makes the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner. But Lieutenant Colonel Dan Shea of the REF's Iraq office says most purchases are of low-tech civilian gear. "We find a problem, then we identify something that's readily available," he says.

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