Military bureaucrats needlessly blocked U.S. troops in Iraq from getting laser weapons - tools that could've kept civilians from getting killed. That, in a nutshell, is what the Pentagon's Inspector General concluded after an investigation of the Marine Corps' botched attempts to send the nonlethal lasers to the war zone.
It's a major mea culpa, but it comes with an important caveat: Sure, the Marines' pencil-pushers mishandled the urgent request for lasers, first issued five years ago. But that doesn't give today's front-line commanders an excuse for circumventing the bureaucrats.
The background to the IG's investigation is a tragic one. During the bloodiest phase of the Iraq war, native civilians, long accustomed to barreling through traffic in their compact cars, would unwittingly speed toward U.S. military checkpoints.
They looked a lot like suicide bombers. Startled Americans would yell, flash their Humvees' headlights and even fire warning shots - often to no effect.
Iraqi roads are too chaotic, and many warnings simply too ambiguous. Faced with a last-second decision to open fire or risk a suicide blast, the Americans often opted to shoot the driver.
There's no telling how many Iraqis died this way. Compounding the tragedy is the possibility that it was all preventable.
As early as the spring of 2006, the Pentagon admits, an inexpensive bit of off-the-shelf technology could have given U.S. Marines at their checkpoints in western Iraq a better way of warning off approaching drivers. But the tech - a nonlethal laser gun that "dazzles" drivers and forces them off the road - ran afoul of the Marines' weapon-developing bureaucracy.
The laser dazzlers were nine months late when they finally arrived in Iraq in late 2006. In the interim, as many as 50 innocent Iraqis were killed in checkpoint shootings, according to one Marine study.
"The lack of a nonlethal laser dazzler capability increased the risk of unwarranted escalation-of-force incidents and the difficulty of safeguarding civilians," the Inspector General's report (.pdf) notes.
"The decision to delay," the report adds, "was unnecessary."
The Marine Corps' failure to get lifesaving technology to its front-line troops in a timely manner speaks to the military's ongoing struggle with a bloated, slow-moving bureaucracy that seems, at times, to forget that America is at war. But in addition to condemning the bureaucracy for its lethargy, the IG also issued a warning to combat units that might try to go behind the bureaucrats' backs by buying new gear with their own funds.
The need for dazzlers was apparent even before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Lt. Gen. Martin Berndt, commander of Marine forces in Europe, included dazzlers on a list of "urgently needed capabilities" in a February 2003 letter addressed to the commandant of the Marine Corps and copied to Marine Corps Combat Development Command in Virginia. Berndt's letter should have served as a heads-up, but to be fair, the formal request for dazzlers didn't come until more than two years later, from the II Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq.
After a spate of checkpoint incidents, II MEF filed an "urgent universal need statement" in September 2005, requesting 400 dazzlers, each costing around $10,000. The urgent-need process is supposed to take just six months from request to fielding, but in this case Development Command waited six months before even beginning the process of buying lasers.
According to the IG, the first four months of delay resulted from Development Command's dispute with the deployed troops over which laser the Corps should purchase. II MEF had specifically requested a dazzler from Connecticut's LE Systems, but that model hadn't been certified by the Navy's laser-safety board - though U.S. Special Forces had endorsed it. Incredibly, the spat over the dazzler brand outlasted II MEF's deployment.
I MEF, the command that replaced II MEF in Iraq in mid-2006, shared the preference for the LE Systems laser. Frustrated with the bureaucratic delays, I MEF bought 28 of LE Systems' dazzlers using its own money and had them shipped directly to Iraq.
When the Marine brass found out, they ordered I MEF to lock away the LE Systems dazzlers and never use them in combat. Today, the IG is recommending the Marine Corps investigate the circumstances of I MEF's laser purchase and "if appropriate, initiate administrative action."
Only after the LE Systems debacle did Development Command initiate the formal process for buying approved dazzlers. "An additional two months elapsed because the administrative processing of the urgent request lagged," the IG's report continued. "As a result, the Marines deployed to Iraq in 2006 were unnecessarily left without a nonlethal laser dazzler capability."
That "increased the risk of unwarranted escalation of force incidents." The 400 Navy-certified lasers didn't begin reaching Iraq until very late in 2006 or early in 2007.
In 2007, Marine Corps scientist Franz Gayl - a longtime critic of the Pentagon establishment - lumped the dazzler with blastproof trucks and small aerial drones as examples of urgently needed weapons that the Marine Corps bureaucracy has deliberately delayed in recent years, to the detriment of front-line troops.
"Gross mismanagement of the dazzler issue may have created a significant adverse impact on the [Ground Combat Element's] ability to accomplish its mission," he claimed. (Gayl would later be stripped of his security clearance, allegedly in retaliation for his whistleblowing efforts.)
LE Systems founder Titus Casazza explained that, perversely, delays could translate into job security for bureaucrats. "Is it that the longer things take, the more complicated you make it and the longer the approval process takes, the longer you keep your job? Nobody wants to make a decision without CYA [cover your ass] up one side and the other."
With America's state and non-state rivals only becoming more sophisticated, the Pentagon knows it must do better. The Marine Corps introduced a new Web-based system in October 2008 for tracking weapons requests. "The establishment of the Virtual Urgent Universal Need Statement system should improve the efficiencies of the urgent-needs process," the IG claimed.
That's good news for U.S. troops, but no comfort at all for all those dead Iraqis, the Marines involved in unnecessary killings, or the Marine officers who could face disciplinary action for daring to buy badly needed gear for their troops, over the heads of heel-dragging bureaucrats.