– Ken Larson – from the book, “Odyssey of Armaments, My Journey Through the Defense Industrial Complex”
In 1968, I came home from serving two US Army tours in Vietnam, having been awarded five medals, including a Bronze Star. During my second tour I acquired Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Depression. Treatment would not become available for either ailment until the mid to late 70’s. Returning to the University of Minnesota at Morris, I found that most of my former classmates were either facing the military draft or were violently against the war. I was not their favorite person.
Feeling isolated and alone, I was unable to relate to my family due to untreated Depression and PTSD. Disillusioned with school, I moved to Minneapolis Minnesota and began a career in the Defense Industrial Complex that would span over three decades from 1969 through 2005. I thought that through working on defense systems, I could contribute to the quality and quantity of weapons that the next generation would take to war. Given a clearly defined mission and the best armaments and systems in the world, I believed that another Vietnam could be avoided for the American Soldier. In pursuit of this goal, I participated in the design, development and production of 25 large scale weapons systems under Federal Government and Foreign Military Sales Contracts. I worked in several different disciplines for the companies that produced these weapons, negotiating and controlling the associated contracts with procurement agencies in the US Armed Forces and in 16 allied countries.
By the time treatment for PTSD and Depression became available, I had such high security clearances that had I been treated for these disorders, the US Government would have revoked my clearances and my career would have ended or would have been sharply curtailed. This quandary led to my journey through the Defense Industrial Complex. I found that accepting extreme challenges and succeeding at them became a way to displace PTSD and elevate depressive moods. For extended periods of time this method of self-management led to a satisfying, although somewhat adventurous and diversified life. However, down periods always occurred, especially after the latest challenge had been met. A new challenge was then required. Family, friends and acquaintances were often puzzled by the frequent changes in my job sites and locations. Two marriages fell by the wayside.
I became known in the industry as a front-end loaded trouble shooter on complex projects, installing processes and business systems required by the Federal Acquisition Regulation. These systems included estimating and pricing, proposal preparation, contract administration, cost and schedule control, program management, design to cost, life cycle cost, export management and other specialties unique to US Government Contracts. Getting through government source selection boards and surviving audits during competition was a significant challenge for defense contractors. Installing required business systems after contract award, under ambitious cost, schedule and technical conditions, was an even more difficult undertaking. I became a leader in the problem solving and creative processes necessary to win contracts and successfully fulfill them. When my mood demanded it, there was always a new job, with a new challenge and a subsequent elevated feeling from success. It was not unusual for a career professional in the Defense Industry to move regularly with the ebb and flow of competitive procurements and associated government funding shifts.
I came to know many of the career military and civil servants who managed the government procurement process. These individuals never went away, regardless of elections or politics. They developed the alternatives from which elected officials must choose. The American Public rarely heard from these powerful insiders, while the insiders slanted the choices supplied to elected officials in a self-perpetuating manner. I recognized the mirror image way in which procuring agencies and defense contractors organized their operations on the largest systems acquisitions. Key executives regularly moved back and forth between government and industry. I often observed the short, happy life of a defense company program manager. Appointed by the powerful insiders to head a single project, he had no authority over company resources, he perpetually competed with other program managers for the same talent pool and he always took the heat from management when things did not go well. His counterpart in the government quarters had similar experiences. I often supported several program managers at the same time. They all were desperate to achieve success. They each believed they had the most important program in the company.
In early 2005, approaching age sixty, I found myself unable to self-manage an extremely deep depressive episode. The journey had simply wound down. This situation nearly resulted in an end to my life. Recovering with help from my family and the US Veteran’s Administration, I now reside in a veteran’s home, volunteering to Small, Veteran-Owned, Women-Owned and Minority-Owned businesses that are pursuing contracts with the Federal Government. I provide advice, alternatives and business examples based on my experiences. It is refreshing to witness the successes of small, motivated and flexible companies. I believe they deserve every special consideration they have achieved under our system of government.
After thirty-six years in the Defense Industrial Complex my greatest satisfaction came from watching “Stormin Norman” and his Gulf War Forces defeat the Iraqi Army in Operation Desert Storm. They used the Abrams Main Battle Tank, the Hellfire Missile and an array of communications and other systems on which I worked. I have had the privilege of meeting several young soldiers coming back from current conflicts in the Middle East who have praised these systems for their life saving performances.
Operation Desert Storm had a clearly defined mission to liberate a small country from an aggressor. We accomplished the mission utilizing the best weapons in the world. Unfortunately, we did not leave the area. The lessons of Vietnam have not been remembered and once again political factors govern our presence in several countries. This time it is the Middle East. A Future Combat System (FCS) is now under development geared for urban warfare with unmanned vehicles, state of the art sensors and remote standoff capabilities. The enemy has grown to become a formidable force, cable of striking without notice even within our own country. He threatens the world economy with violent disruptions in several domains at the same time. He is a product of our own creation, rebelling against the “US Police Force” with help from neighbors who play either benign or active roles. Our enemy knows his neighborhood far better than we do. US intelligence and military capabilities are strained to the maximum monitoring perceived hot spots all over the globe. We must face the fact that our long term presence in other countries is resented.
How much longer can we afford to be the “World’s Policeman”? We are spending over $500B per year for defense, homeland security and nation building. Investments we are making in developing new democracies are draining our domestic programs such as health care, stifling the education of our young people and limiting research and development in valuable commercial technologies. The largest corporations selling to our government are no more than extensions of our government in the cloak of industry. They are not in the business of making money for the stockholder. They are in the business of spending money for the government. As a result they are some of the poorest growth stocks on Wall Street. Recent consolidation in the Defense Industrial Complex has dramatically reduced competition. Only public laws mandating a twenty per cent allocation of Federal Contract Funding to small business have kept diversification in the mix. Even then, much of the moneys that flow to small business go through a select group of large business prime contractors who add their respective overhead and general administrative expense to the small business cost and pass it on to the government.
When we consider the largest evolving countries in the world today, such as China, India and others, we should note that they are successfully competing with us in a fast moving, complex world economy. These countries are not all pure democracies and probably never will be. No overt action on our part created these powerhouses. As we struggle to compete with them we must have education, research and development and a healthy work force to keep pace. How much can we afford to spend forcing our capitalistic ideologies on other societies? Events have proven that the world has become a tightly wound place economically. Countries who wish to succeed and grow will play the game anyway.
I hope that this account of my experiences has supplied useful insights into the US Government Defense Industrial Complex. My odyssey was driven by a need to manage illnesses acquired in warfare. I found a way to deal with the maladies for years by spreading myself thin and accepting every new challenge. I thrilled at success and moved on after defeat, pursuing a misguided goal. Out of necessity I have now been forced to look inward, wind down to a smaller perspective, take care of my health – begin serving the little guy.
Perhaps it is time for our country to consider a similar transition.