Saturday, January 31, 2009

Outsourcing Incompetence

Marine Pfc.Jesse Young, 19, of Clinton, Conn., wearing body armor, surveys the terrain through his weapon's sight after entering a mock village during a training exercise Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2008. (AP Photo/Ric Francis)

Democratic New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter has made adequate armor for our troops, to use a potentially explosive word, a crusade. Since Shock and Awe began on March 19, 2003, Rep. Slaughter has requested, and gotten, two Pentagon Inspector General reports. The results of the last one was especially disturbing- The Pentagon's IG discovered that 16,000 sets of body armor had been recalled on the orders of Army Secretary Pete Geren. Bobby Ghosh's article for Time says,
The IG focused on "first article testing," by which any design flaws are spotted and rectified during the manufacturing process. Such testing is meant to confirm that a product meets Army specifications. The audit says the Army didn't perform or score the tests consistently. As a result, the audit report says, "we believe that three of the eight ballistic-insert designs that passed first article testing actually failed."

OK, this is the part where yours truly has to step in. As a former QC inspector who'd examined parts for federal contracts, I can tell you what a First Article report is, why it is so important and why this IG audit is more disturbing than a layman even realizes. I'll try not to be too boring here so bear with me: This is significant.

First, let me go backwards: When a piece goes into mass production at an ISO 9000-certified company such as my next-to-last employer, the lots are sent to Quality Control or Quality Assurance (two completely different animals). Depending on how many pieces Engineering specifies (and how busy you are with other projects), you inspect a certain number of parts based on the sampling size. For instance, if you're inspecting 1-51 parts, our usual sampling protocol (called C=0) would call for us to inspect 13 pieces. The higher the sample, the more parts we'd inspect. This ranges from visual inspection, Vernier caliper measurements, stress tests and so forth.

C=0 was very unforgiving. You find more than one reject out of a sample size of 13 out of a lot of 51, you have to send the entire lot back to Production and alert Engineering. Sometimes, you have to have an MRB meeting involving QC, production, engineering and sometimes even executive management to arrive at a disposition that could involve reworking to actually scrapping the lot.

This is where the difference between QC and QA comes in. QC is essentially the art of saying, "You didn't make this right." QA is the art of saying, "You're not making this right." See the difference? QC is an antiquated form of quality that inspects the pieces only after the cost of materials and labor had been invested. There's little if any in-process supervision on the line.

QA is all about in-process inspections, or overseeing the production process right on the lines. So if an autoclave or extruder needs to be recalibrated, for instance, you can jump on it before the order is filled.

Now, while we usually used the C=0 sampling plan, when dealing with federal contracts for the military, sometimes we'd be called upon to use military specs such as mil-standard 105b or 105e, for example. This, believe it or not, is a little more forgiving- You're able to find up to two rejects in a sampling lot of 13 before you have to send the lot back for disposition, whereas C=0 would permit only one reject out of 13.

What's so alarming about the Pentagon IG's report is this: The first article inspection, which sources everything from the materials used to actual measurements, is based on a prototype that's made before (not, as Ghosh claims, during the production phase) the piece goes into mass production. This first article report is then sent to the customer to assure them that their piece meets all their specs and standards. It should, in theory, involve what is known as a source inspection between the QC or QA inspector and a representative from the customer's company.

The Pentagon Inspector General's second Slaughter-requested audit is so disturbing because apparently this body armor went into mass production with different contractors after what was apparently a slipshod first article inspection process.

Let me tell you from experience, people, that even though QC is a quality-driven department, sometimes when executive management had a lot of money (and personal bonuses) on the line, they would pressure us to get orders out the door so they could invoice them. We were told to cut corners and before you know it, QC becomes a bottom-line department. It doesn't matter to senior management if, a month down the road, the parts get RMA'd (or rejected and sent back) back to us. By then, their bonuses are already in their pockets and suddenly everyone develops amnesia and looks no further than the signature at the bottom of the cert or first article report, which is that of the QC inspector.

The body armor and the ceramic bulletproof plates in them got mass-produced with lax oversight by both the Pentagon and the manufacturer, the first article process getting all but bypassed so the pieces could be rushed into production.

Ghosh doesn't go into which contractors are involved but we've been hearing over the years about all the tens of thousands of pieces of body armor that have been rejected by the Army and the Marine Corps or (more horrifyingly) actually red-tagged and issued to our troops, anyway. We've all heard, I hope, about the DHB scandal involving the crappy armor made by convicted swindler David Brooks. Years ago when I first began blogging about political, social, media and military matters I'd read news articles in which ceramic plates would break when simply dropped on the floor.

Troops were told by the Pentagon that if they were literally caught dead wearing Dragonskin or any other armor other than David Brooks' armor, they'd lose their SGLI death benefits. The Pentagon became the biggest pimp for a guy who, along with two of his top executives, were about to get arrested not for making shoddy armor or PASGT's (or Personnel Armor System for Ground Troops, such as helmets) but for tax evasion and insider trading.

Believe it or not, the Interceptor model made by David Brooks' company wasn't Level III-A-rated because Pentagon standards don't require that they stop a .45 caliber slug.

Bottom line: At the same time that we've been tamping billions of dollars down the throats of dozens of contractors at taxpayer expense, we were still not standard-issuing these kids top-of-the-line armor that was even rated to stop a .45 slug. Which would be considered a break compared to the unimaginably deadly IED's and the resultant shrapnel that Brooks' crappy armor also wouldn't stop. And in some cases, it wasn't even able to intercept the much lighter 9 mm rounds for which "the Interceptor" was rated to stop.

The good news is, Brooks' crappy armor was replaced with that from other companies. The bad news is, according to the IG's latest report, not only is the new armor suspect if not outright defective, the quality inspection process appears to have been deliberately streamlined in order to keep the profits flowing out of the Treasury and into the pockets of other guys like David Brooks at the expense of the safety of our kids in the Persian Gulf.

Which is something else that Obama's people should look into.


At January 31, 2009 at 12:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks JP, very informative

At January 31, 2009 at 12:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gonna need an army of special prosecutors to get to the bottom of all of BushCo's crimes. Don't think it's going to happen.


At January 31, 2009 at 4:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"keep the profits flowing out of the Treasury and into the pockets of other guys like David Brooks at the expense of the safety of our kids in the Persian Gulf."

How is that a crime? Making profits is American, hindering the making of profits is Communism.

If Palin had been elected President, Brooks would be head of the Pentagon IG's office as a reward for the good work he's been doing.

The Republican Party doesn't give a shit about the soldier on the line, just as the Democratic Party doesn't give a shit about their constituents...

At January 31, 2009 at 5:04 PM, Blogger Dr. Know said...

The scuttlebutt I heard was that some spreadsheet wizard at the Pentagon presented the scenario wherein it was cheaper to let soldiers die from chest wounds in the field rather than dealing with thousands of amputees long term. He was immediately promoted to IG buttwiper.

At January 31, 2009 at 5:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who's the real enemy for our troops the poor Iraqi's defending
their homeland or the Pentagon?
Our military supplies and equipment
seems to be a joke. Shameful.

At February 1, 2009 at 5:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or, to be a bit more cynical, this just helps to level the playing field between occupation and resistance somewhat. Conveniently forgetting that nobody has successfully occupied Iraq for quite some time. Also forgetting that it appears that the Pentagon is doing their darndest to destroy the troops rather than have them come back to the US healthy, combat-hardened, lied to, and angry. When did you last speak to an Iraq vet who still thought the war was a good idea?

At February 1, 2009 at 5:42 PM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

I've spoken to a few who'd said that. Look at it from their POV: To believe otherwise is unthinkable, especially if they lost friends or body parts there.

Imagine such a horrible epiphany, to be told you cannot hold your child anymore or run with them anymore or see them anymore... for a failed, illegal purpose.

At February 2, 2009 at 2:10 AM, Blogger Bukko Boomeranger said...

Thanks for the explanation of how QC is supposed to work, JP. Fascinating to see the nuts and bolts of how it gets done. I can see how crooked bastards are able to tweak details slightly here and there in order to make cheaper crap at higher profits. All it takes is an utter lack of conscience.


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