Tuesday, November 1, 2016

POWERFUL, PRICY, & ... DUMB?

The U.S. Pentagon

By Gayle Lynds.  This is a true story that's stayed with me for years. Why?  Not only because it's crazy, and funny, and an example of political, military, and corporate hubris run amok, but also because I've never been able to fit it into one of my novels.  I'm thrilled at last to share it with you....

Back in the 1970s during the height of the Cold War, fear of a hot war with the Soviet Union was realistic and terrifying.  The Pentagon decided we needed a reliable way to secretly test our latest weapons against theirs.  Thus was born the Foreign Materiel Acquisition program — FMA — with a walloping annual allocation of some $100 million from the Pentagon’s black budget, no questions asked.

FMA asked a few private U.S. companies with intelligence ties to set up dummy accounts in the same Beltway bank FMA was using.  Then FMA went through the companies to hire foreign — not U.S. — arms traffickers so they could dodge the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which forbids Americans from bribing foreign officials.  The bank transactions were efficient — and untraceable.  The clandestine program to acquire Communist weapons was a fast success.

Meanwhile the U.S. Army had contracted for a cutting-edge antiaircraft cannon that was expected to become the mainstay of defense against Soviet missile-firing helicopters and close air-support fighters.  It was called the Sergeant York or DIVAD, for Division Air Defense.  With laser rangefinders and computer-controlled guidance, the Sergeant York was hailed as “the most sophisticated piece of equipment ever to roll onto a battlefield.”
DIVAD, or the Sergeant York

Although there were rumors the Sergeant York was defective, the Pentagon remained enthusiastic.  So much so that it decided it needed to acquire a challenging target against which to prove the futurist U.S. machine was worth its sky-rocketing costs.

So FMA hired one of its underworld arms brokers — allegedly the notorious Ernst Werner Glatt, ex Nazi, gunrunner, and CIA asset for some 40 years.  Glatt not only managed to steal a new Soviet attack helicopter off the factory floor, a stunning feat in itself, but he also smuggled it successfully out of that fortress country and into the United States, giving the Pentagon the perfect aircraft on which to test the Sergeant York.

The Pentagon sent out invitations to military and political VIPs.  Unfortunately, the test went poorly, showing the Sergeant York had problems with its radar and aim.  There was also the embarrassing discovery that its guns couldn't fire as far as the Soviet chopper’s could.  Then the Sergeant York's computers malfunctioned, and the canon swung away from the target and toward the reviewing stands.  The generals and experts ducked and ran. 
Caspar Weinberger

To make matters worse, a fan installed in the portable toilet turned on to blow odors away.  The Sergeant York’s guns mistook the fan’s noise for that of a helicopter’s whirling rotors.  The big machine rotated on its chassis, aimed, and blasted the outhouse into oblivion.  No one was seriously injured.  The loss in toilet paper was high.

The next year, after more than $1 billion had been spent developing the Sergeant York, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger killed it.

Still, the dramatic heist of the Soviet war bird was a blue ribbon for FMA, endorsing its worth. Over the years since, the shadowy program has continued to deliver secret armaments stolen or bought from enemies and friends alike, coasting past revelations of its alleged financial waste and criminal acts.

Today, FMA thrives and remains little known.  But that’s because it’s still black, still subversive — and even more powerful.

With this post I begin the next series of Rogue stories.  The topic is “Tools of the Trade” — disguises, weapons, tradecraft, you get the idea.  To subscribe, just click here

Do you have any favorite Cold War stories?  Please share!

9 comments:

  1. Gayle, what a fascinating story! I had no idea...

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  2. What a great story, Gayle. The Sergeant York is a true tale of idiocy and hubris. So glad you shared it, and so sorry you haven't been able to work the tale into a novel.

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  3. Great story! I've got a .22 rifle. Think I could sell it through the FMA?

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  5. Terrific stories, Gayle -- they sound like acquisition exercises that perhaps were recently de-classified (right?) Thanks so much for enlightening us on these programs....fascinating review of "Cold War" history (which now seems to be heating up again).

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  6. Thanks, everyone. I tried womanfully to include it in The Last Spymaster which dealt with the gray world of international arms dealers, but there was just so much other fascinating stuff that I couldn't work it in. So, yes, Karna, it was declassified many moons ago, and I think the story has been used in various ways in movies and books. Still, not many folks have heard of it. Sure appreciate your comments!

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  7. Wow, Gayle, that was some story...gives whole new meaning to having a plan backfire. Thanks for the entertaining and informative post. You're a woman of endless tales, and I want to keep hearing more!

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  8. The Sergeant York had troubles with radar and aim...Well that just about covers it, doesn't it? Great story!

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  9. I loved reading this story--especially about the outhouse mishap. What's interesting to me is how many times we have to spend a LOT of money on something only to find that it doesn't work. Conversely, sometimes we have to spend a lot of money before we can hammer out the glitches and make something work. Great post, Gayle. I found this fascinating.

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