Marines' New Ride Rolls Out Years Late

The Growler, the Marines' answer to a transportation question first posed in 1999, costs more than twice what the contract envisioned.
The Growler, the Marines' answer to a transportation question first posed in 1999, costs more than twice what the contract envisioned. (U.s. Marine Corps)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Marine Corps is starting to deploy a jeeplike vehicle called the Growler, 10 years after conception and at twice the contract price, after delays that were caused by changing concepts and problems in contracting, development and testing, according to two reports.

Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sought investigations by the Government Accountability Office and the Defense Department inspector general in light of complaints by the unsuccessful bidder on the project.

But a spokesman for Levin said the inspector general's report, released last month, showed that cost increases and delays are so normal in defense contracting, particularly in contracts involving hundreds of millions of dollars, that they don't raise great concerns.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, however, stressed the importance of reforming procurement in remarks before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, saying that all services are feeling the effects of weapons programs that have "had repeated -- and unacceptable -- problems with requirements, schedule, cost and performance."

The idea for such a vehicle was developed in 1999 by the Marine Corps, which wanted a vehicle that could be carried in the V-22 Osprey aircraft to support assault operations and that would tow a 120mm mortar and an ammunition trailer.

Today, instead of one vehicle that could serve both functions, there are two -- one for reconnaissance and a shorter version that tows the mortar and ammunition trailer -- built by the same company.

The first Growlers in the mortar program -- officially called internally transportable vehicles, or ITVs -- have been deployed to Marine units, but with limited combat capabilities. Because of their light armor and ammunition safety problems, "you can't run it up the highway in an urban area such as Iraq," said John Garner, the Marines' program manager for the vehicle. "But it could accompany foot-mobile Marine infantry in a not-built-up area such as Afghanistan," he added.

The inspector general report said that the average cost of a single Growler has risen 120 percent, from about $94,000 when the contract was awarded in 2004 to $209,000 in 2008. The unit cost for the vehicle with mortar and ammunition trailer has grown 86 percent, from $579,000 to $1,078,000.

The first six mortar and ammunition systems have been sent to Marine units, as have about 20 ITVs. "It is up to unit commanders who receive them as to whether they will take them when deployed abroad," Garner said.

The Army has 81 ITVs under contract and is awaiting bids on 70 more; there are 12 mortar and ammunition trailer systems under contract and 20 more out for bids, according to Garner.

Troubles with the two systems started in 2004 during the final competition between two bidders for the vehicle contract. One bidder was a team of the giant defense contractor General Dynamics Corp. and a small company called American Growler Inc. of Ocala, Fla., known primarily for building a successful dune buggy using surplus, customized Army M151A2s, a popular version of the military jeep. The other was a contractor in Michigan called Rae-Beck Automotive LLC, which built a popular neighborhood electric car.

By choosing General Dynamics and American Growler, the Marines were able to procure an existing vehicle that was equipped with components that could be purchased "off the shelf," avoiding costs of research and developing an entirely new vehicle. While the Rae-Beck entry was found to be superior in some tests, the Growler, according to Garner, was better "in the most important ones."

But after the contract was awarded, Garner said, "there were significant additions made for capability." For example, an air suspension had to be added to allow the Growler to get on and off the Osprey because it could raise and lower its height. The makers added a new cooling system, power steering and power brakes, along with a beefed-up General Motors engine similar to the one used in the GMC Yukon. Altogether, Garner said, about $50,000 of the cost growth was in additional off-the-shelf items that now permit the Growler to travel up to 45 mph on a highway.

Testing from 2005 to 2007 continued to find problems, and it was not until 2008 that the Growler met all requirements. Because the Osprey itself had developmental problems, delays did not harm Marine operational plans, according to the GAO report.

The Pentagon inspector general's report said that awarding the contract in November 2004 to Growler was not "in accordance with the Federal Acquisition Regulation." At issue, however, were technical details about what the important criteria were.

The history of the Growler problems are public because Rae-Beck complained to Levin, prompting the investigations. Another investigation, by the Marine Corps inspector general in 2005, looked into an anonymous complaint of a conflict of interest in the contract award because one of the principals in the Growler company, Curtis "Terry" Crews, was a retired Marine Corps colonel. The investigation concluded there was no evidence that anything improper occurred.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company