By Charles R. Babcock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 19, 2006
Over the past decade Vibration & Sound Solutions Ltd., a small Alexandria defense contractor, has received a steady flow of federal contracts to work on "Project M" -- $37 million in all from annual "earmarks" by congressional supporters such as Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.).
Project M, a technology involving magnetic levitation, was conceived as a way to keep submarine machinery quieter, was later marketed as a way to keep Navy SEALs safer in their boats and, in the end, was examined as a possible way to protect Marines from roadside bombs.
All the applications have one thing in common: The Pentagon hasn't wanted them.
The company is holding out hope, but with little other business and the congressional funding apparently at an end, VSSL is planning to close its Alexandria headquarters and lab.
The government got its money's worth in Project M, VSSL President Robert J. Conkling said in a recent interview. The technology might still be used to help the nation's military, he said.
"I don't know how you can calculate return on investment" on a system that prevents special operations forces from being injured, he said.
Analysts and others who follow congressional earmarking closely say the company's experience exemplifies one of the pitfalls of the process: Once begun, promising but speculative programs like Project M are hard to kill, sustained by members of Congress who want to keep jobs in their districts, military officials who want to keep their options open and businesspeople who want to keep their companies afloat.
Paul M. Lowell, a civilian Navy employee who for a time oversaw VSSL's work as chief of staff in the Office of Naval Research, said Project M "seemed to me a solution looking for a problem the Navy might have."
"But it kept failing to solve any problems the Navy had," Lowell said. "It looked at first as if it might have some merit. But we found out quickly it didn't really solve the problems. And the company wasn't very responsive and wasn't very robust. . . . It was living entirely" on grants from Congress.
Lowell said Project M wouldn't have lasted as long inside the Navy, where scientific projects are subjected to peer review.
The Navy rejected Project M's use in submarines in 2001. Moran, who said the company's 25 or so jobs were important to his district, and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), now chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, kept money flowing to the company until this year.
Moran received $17,000 in campaign contributions from Conkling and his wife over the years.
"I was interested in the technology" after Conkling invited him to see the facility, Moran said recently. He said he earmarks projects if the company involved employs people in his district and the military thinks it has merit. "I'm not sure the research bore out as effectively as they wanted," he said of Conkling and VSSL.
Former Armed Services Committee aide Anthony R. Battista was an original incorporator of VSSL. Former representative William L. Dickinson (R-Ala), long a senior member and colleague of Hunter's on the Armed Services Committee, was an investor, Conkling said. Both were on the company's board of directors and lobbied for its technology.
Hunter said he supported Project M because he thought the technology targeted critical national needs, not as a favor for Battista and Dickinson. Conkling did not contribute to Hunter's campaigns.
Earmarking appropriations bills with billions of dollars designated for projects of particular companies has been under attack in recent months because of the high federal budget deficit and the recent corruption convictions of former representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) and a Washington defense contractor who traded bribes for federal contracts.
The practice has blossomed over the past decade. The number of earmarks in the annual defense spending bill increased from 587 worth $4.2 billion in fiscal 1994 to 2,506 worth $9 billion in fiscal 2005, according to a recent Congressional Research Service study. There were 231 "plus-ups" -- the Navy's term for the money Congress adds for its members' pet projects -- totaling nearly $600 million just in the Office of Naval Research budget in fiscal 2005, about a quarter of the total.
Advocates generally defend earmarks as a way to move innovative ideas quickly through a sluggish bureaucracy. Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, cites the development of the Predator pilotless aircraft in southern California as an example of a "good" earmark.
Winslow Wheeler, a retired congressional aide who has written a book about earmarks, said he knows of no study of how often such set-asides result in useful products for the military.
Members of Congress "don't want to know," Wheeler said, because "evaluating those projects would separate the wheat from the chaff."
Conkling, 69, said in a recent interview that Project M's origins trace to the Cold War in the mid-1980s, when he was consulting for a British company, GEC-Marconi.
Shortly before that, Conkling had been in business with Tongsun Park, a South Korean businessman who had been indicted on charges of bribing members of Congress in the 1970s. Those charges were dropped. Also, Park was a member of the wedding party at Conkling's marriage in 1986.
The British company's "maglev" technology interested the Pentagon's research agency, known as DARPA, which funded it, Conkling said. (The M, he noted, didn't stand for magnetic, but was just the next letter the research agency used to name its projects.)
By the early 1990s the Navy was impressed enough to want to finish development of the system in the United States. But Conkling said his client was reluctant to turn development over to a Navy lab and asked him to "Americanize the technology." In 1994 he incorporated VSSL, anticipating a project that would last about three years, he said.
The goal was to put a submarine's machinery on a 60-by-100 foot raft and use magnets to levitate it, cutting the vibrations that reached the hull and making the craft less detectable to enemy sonars.
Congressional staff members were impressed, Conkling said, and with Dickinson as an investor and helping spread the word, the project "built its own constituency."
In 1995, the House authorizing committee recommended spending $7 million on Project M. Appropriators agreed. VSSL's first contract, for nearly $12 million, was signed two years later. Yearly funding continued until 2001, when the Navy delivered a report to Congress that was both laudatory and damaging.
It praised Project M for results "not achievable by any other means." But it added: "Unfortunately, the price for this high level of performance is that this technology creates significant impacts to the design of the ship that cannot be economically overcome at this time."
The Navy concluded that it would not use the technology.
Instead of being a death knell for the earmark, however, Conkling said Rear Adm. Jay M. Cohen, chief of Naval Research, suggested that he take the anti-vibration idea and try it on a new problem: the rocky ride that special-operations sailors encountered maneuvering their speedboats in high seas.
Conkling said Hunter and Moran backed the new idea and he filled out an earmark form in Moran's office. "A ton of SEALs are getting cashiered for injuries on boats," said Hunter, whose district includes a major base for the elite Navy team. "So remedying it became important to me."
In 2003, VSSL suffered another blow when a competing earmark directed the Navy to pick a Long Island company to build a seat to protect its SEALs. The VSSL seats have been installed on a prototype of the Navy's X-Craft, another project supported by Hunter.
As a result, Conkling's company was hurting for cash again, according to e-mails made available to The Washington Post. In late 2003, Conkling sent an e-mail to Cohen that said that the "lack of funding is now critical" and that he was considering closing the company.
In May 2004, Hunter wrote to Gordon England, then secretary of the Navy, asking him to take time for a demonstration of the company's technology, while acknowledging that its immediate use in the SEAL patrol boat "may not be realistic."
VSSL shifted gears again last year, announcing that it was adapting its technology to build seats for a Marine road vehicle. The idea was Cohen's, Conkling said, and the goal was to mitigate the effect of blast and shock from roadside bombs.
The company has not received any earmarked funding for next year. Conkling said VSSL is now "restructuring" to focus on selling its seats.
Dickinson, now retired from VSSL's board, said he went to Hunter several times to help VSSL get funding, and though the company had good ideas, it "could never get a substantial contract from the Navy."
Battista said he tried but couldn't get in to lobby Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, on behalf of the company. He still thinks the technology "would have helped the military."
Cohen, now retired from the Navy, said the good news about VSSL's technology "is that the money invested in Project M is owned in large part by the taxpayer and when the time is right it will be utilized" by all the services.
At the Office of Naval Research, he said, his job was to take risks. "With risk comes the chance of both success and failure."
Staff researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.