Mongoose takes US taxpayers for a ride

A letter from Steve Dayton, USA

Dear JUST Response,

Re: Impeach George W. Bush now (JUST Response, May 18 2004)

Think about The Pentagon – that virtual themepark of "Military Intelligence" (an oxymoron of Disneylandian proportions). You know, it's the place where Donald Rumsfeld blathers his bespectacled banter, buttressed by a bloated budget burgeoning with billions of taxpayer bucks. That bustling beehive of bickering brains behind the B-2 Bomber, the 5-sided bastion of a 5-star Board of Brass at whose behest our brawny boys-in-uniform brave bullets in Bradleys bouncing across Biblical lands in search of burrowed Bedouins and bunkered Bin Ladens. Ok, maybe that's a lot of B's, or even BS. But almost everybody has heard about Pentagon buyers bartering for ball-peen hammers at the bargain-basement price of barely 5 Ben Franklins.

Now shift your focus to Austin, Texas  – lawyers, liberals, and live-musicians all grazing together in one dusty Republican corral by the Colorado River. Former hangout of our beloved president Bush Junior and home to a small, redneck aerospace company called Tracor, which was purchased several years back by the 2nd largest defense contractor in the world: BAE Systems. This is the setting for a story I am thinking of writing: a witty, entertaining, and factual exposé about BAE System's Mongoose program, a government-funded Defense snafu I had the distinct displeasure of being a part of in the Summer of 2002. 

A Yahoo-internet search using the keywords "Mongoose" and "mine" will quickly yield information on this still-alive-and-kicking Army endeavor, in case you are wondering if I am making this whole thing up. Or maybe you are just wondering about me, period. As far as my background is concerned, I graduated Stanford University with a BS in Mechanical Engineering (with Distinction!) and have spent more than a few years in the aerospace industry at companies like Lockheed and BAE Systems. Blissfully ignorant on that long-ago graduation day, I have only recently realized that my 1983 BSME degree (and Ronald Reagan's Star Wars Decade) virtually strait-jacketed me into a career dealing with DOD-related companies of this ilk. 

Being a kindred soul of the "sensitive, bleeding-heart-liberal whiner" party, I have basically nothing to show for my time as a Democrat aerospace engineer except numerous hangovers, low pay-raises, and ah yes, the memories: a virtual treasure-trove of (hopefully) humorous and cynically intellectual anecdotes about good-ole-boy conservative politics, schedules (and budgets) on wheels, and the rampant absurdity of management and employees in the Defense-contractor business who spend (waste) government money every time they deposit their paychecks after a month of drinking coffee, surfing the web, chatting in the hallways, and going to meetings with each other.

But lest I get ahead of myself, all I will mention at this juncture is the Mongoose tale itself, in which I played a pivotal, albeit tragic role. The Mongoose system is essentially a flying net stitched with explosive buttons, towed by a rocket out of its container like a giant Jack-in-the-Box, which soars through the air in a dramatic, six-second flight, and subsequently lands several hundred feet downrange, hopefully spanning a suspected enemy minefield (which is hopefully flat like an Arctic tundra, because things like bushes and boulders really screw up the whole landing concept). A remote command is then issued to detonate the explosives, which discharge into the ground and theoretically disable the mines hidden therein, thus creating a "cleared" lane for military vehicles to pass safely across. 

A great idea, yes.... er, maybe... but only if the wind isn't blowing real hard, because as most kite-flying enthusiasts know, a well-timed gust of sufficient strength can ruin your whole afternoon. I was the lucky engineer given the challenging task of analyzing the crosswind performance of the Mongoose system using well-known and respected dynamic modeling software called ADAMS (now owned by MacNeal-Schwendler Corp.). Even though the current Mongoose program has been funded to the tune of $80 Million dating back to 1994, I was privileged (or cursed, as it turned out) to be the first person to get any real insight into the crosswind behavior of this beast – the Mongoose flying carpet – in the Summer of 2002. 

Needless to say, Mongooses (Mongeese?) of this design were never meant to fly in windy conditions, the typical sort of wind you might encounter in, say, the deserts of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, or any other hostile, landmine-happy Middle Eastern nation you can name. Several of my computer runs, animated beautifully in 3D, showed the net flipping ass-over-teakettle (upside-down) in winds as low as 20 mph, which meant the explosive charges would be directed up into the air... not really effective for mines buried below the ground, you see. (I still have access to several of these computer animations, stored in Windows .avi format, and I will be happy to share them in future correspondence with you, my dear editor, if you are keen to a story like this...) A picture is worth a thousand words, as they say, and I dutifully (and, I will admit, somewhat gleefully) reported my results to the team.

This revolting development took everyone by surprise, including Jim Bob Bryant, the program manager (yes, his name really is JIM BOB), who visited my office (for the first time ever) the day after my report was published as an internal memo, where he apologized for treating me like just another rank-and-file zombie who lives off the swollen government teats. And it gets worse... the previous engineering team (or bunch of Tracor rednecks, if you prefer) who initiated the development of Mongoose, had PATENTED the very scheme (called a "dihedral configuration for stable deployment") directly responsible for this shockingly aberrant crosswind behavior (You can find this U.S. Patent -- Number 5,675,104 -- on www.uspto.gov if you are so inclined). Furthermore, it doesn't require more than a fourth-grade education to see and understand the rudimentary design flaw in the Mongoose system (and you, esteemed editor, will agree with this seemingly arrogant statement when you view the computer animations yourself)! 

And lastly, since the vaunted, patented V-shaped "dihedral configuration" is what causes the net to roll and twist in the wind like Aladdin zooming home after happy hour, the whole thing became a political nightmare which resulted in me being shuffled off the program and eventually terminated from the company. They simply loathed me for pointing out the obvious : take out the dihedral angle and make it a simple, flat-shaped net (a "conventional" flying carpet, if you will), and VOILA... problem solved. They had even tested "flat" nets in the past, with success. But alas, it was too late to turn back now – jeezus, imagine the political embarrassment after seven long years of ignorance. 

How many times had a government official, flanked by Colonels and Majors in full dress uniform, asked the question "So what is the V-shape for?" How many times did the chief engineer and author of the patent (David Schorr) smile condescendingly and launch into his proud and rehearsed prattle about how the dihedral angle actually STABILIZES the net and PREVENTS it from rolling and flipping in the presence of crosswinds? Incidentally, David himself also stopped by my office (for the first time ever) immediately after the report was published, and our discussion will be a funny sidebar to my proposed story. To give you a taste, when I suggested politely that perhaps a flat net would perform better than the V-shaped net, David responded "What do you mean, BETTER?" 

When I suggested that the 35 mph crosswind performance specification – which had been agreed to (for over seven years at the time) in the written contract between our company and the government officials – was probably not achievable with the dihedral design (given the fact that it was flipping over in 20 mph crosswinds), David responded "Oh... I knew we would never be able to survive anything above 15 mph. I don't know who wrote that into the contract." Yes, a dialogue worthy of its own Dilbert comic strip series.

So there you have it. The Mongoose program. 10 years in the making (and counting). Over 80 Million dollars of taxpayer money (and counting) frittered away on a flying, explosive-filled monstrosity that flips over in moderate crosswinds. A vaunted, patented, expensive dihedral "technology" that essentially produces a poorly designed kite. A flaw that can be easily demonstrated and proved by a grade-schooler with a fan and a piece of folded paper. And yours truly, twisting in the political winds.

Sincerely,

Steve Dayton
Livermore
California, USA

Note: This letter was published by JUST Response on June 14 2004.

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