Operation: Leaf Blower

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

By Christopher Megerian

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Leaf blowers, laser pointers, and speedboat hulls. These are the new cutting edge in American military might. While the Pentagon has been a tireless advocate for high-tech weaponry, the U.S. military is still struggling to defend soldiers in Iraq from roadside bombs and other low-tech improvisations by insurgents. In response to this ever-evolving menace, the military is straining to be more creative and less plodding in procuring effective battle gear.

The result: a growing list of unconventional battlefield supplies from the civilian sector that can provide quick fixes in Iraq's brutal war zones, which have already claimed 3,610 U.S. lives. "Everything we do is based on the enemy. And it's an adaptive, smart enemy out there," says Gerald Ferguson Jr., deputy director of the U.S. Army's Rapid Equipping Force (REF), which is speeding off-the-shelf equipment to the front lines.

Exhibit A: The Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) program, launched in late 2006 by the Marine Corps. Rather than design a whole new generation of armored vehicles itself, the Corps issued an appeal to both military and civilian contractors for quick, imaginative solutions. How about a truck built with the hull of a boat underneath? That idea was floated by Force Protection Industries, of Ladson, S.C., which used to make speedboats. Michael Aldrich, vice-president for marketing and government relations, recalls telling his colleagues: "In my humble opinion, the boat business is a waste of time. What we're going to need is thousands and thousands of land vehicles with V-shaped hulls."

The idea, which actually dates back about 30 years, is based on the observation that dampening shock waves from an explosion may be just like deflecting the impact of waves on a hull. Force Protection began shipping its Cougar trucks to Iraq in 2004, two years before the MRAP program got off the ground. In more than 2 million hours of use, not a single occupant has died in a Cougar, according to the company. Today, Force Protection is supplying nearly half the 3,765 armored trucks the military has ordered under MRAP. The Army plans to buy more than 17,000 MRAP vehicles, which could mean billions of dollars in additional Cougar contracts if funding is approved. The company's shares have tripled since last November, to more than 23.

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.

Far smaller companies have learned to work with the military. Often, they're contacted directly by the REF, which is based in Fort Belvoir, Va., and has branches in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its soldiers have the authority to make smaller purchases of, say, a few thousand dollars, using an Army credit card.

It was the REF that came looking 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 expose them by means of a leaf blower strapped to the front of vehicles. Buffalo, which usually sells its equipment to golf courses, worked with the Army to toughen the blower's rotating nozzle.

The REF has also reached out to a two-person company located in a suburban home near Portland, Ore. Beam of Light Technologies Inc. imports green lasers from Taiwan for such civilian uses as classroom teaching and birdwatching. Soldiers in Iraq have found that green lasers, easier to see than red ones, can be used to warn motorists to stop when they approach a checkpoint. The alternative--firing a few warning shots--often frightens drivers, prompting them to accelerate instead, which can cause soldiers to open fire.

The REF reports that green lasers have reduced aggressive driving at checkpoints by as much as 80%. And the purchases--25,000 since the 2003 invasion--have given a big boost to Beam of Light. Military sales accounted for almost 60% of the company's $3 million in sales for 2006, double the previous year's revenues. Says REF Lieutenant Colonel Dan Shea: "We find a problem, then we identify something that's readily available."

Chris Megerian is an intern at <i>BusinessWeek</i>. He is a rising senior at Emory University, where he co-majors in journalism and international studies.

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