The Cougar isn’t built for speed. The massive beast is the armadillo of the military world, with a V-shaped metal hull designed to deflect a bomb’s blast up and away from its passengers and a retractable arm that can remove an improvised explosive device (IED) from Iraqi roadsides and detonate it.

Ladson company Force Protection, Inc., which designed and manufactures the vehicle for the federal government, recently admitted that it was months behind an expedited production schedule, while American servicemen and women are being severely injured by roadside bombs.

The original $84 million contract for the vehicle requires Force Protection to deliver 122 Cougars to the military by the end of June 2006.

That timetable was quickly changed last year as American military casualties began to mount along with criticism that the Bush Administration and the military weren’t providing adequate armor and safe vehicles to those serving in the field. For an additional $6.7 million, Force Protection agreed to a February delivery date.

But a recent The New York Times article references a supposedly sealed federal complaint and investigation into the allegation that the Force Protection brass knew all along the new timetable was unreachable.

Timing is, as they say, everything. And the Times story came at an especially inopportune time for the company, which is bidding to build another vehicle for the military, one of several slated to replace some of the HUMVEE’s current roles.

As of last Thursday, the company has delivered 20 of the 122 Cougars to a joint military force, having already delivered 27 Cougars to the Marines in a separate contract. The timetable for delivery on the remaining 102 Cougars has been returned to June, at which point the federal government may demand its extra money back.

“This has been a rather perplexing issue for us,” says the company’s vice president, Mike Aldrich, from his Connecticut office. “Those allegations are sealed in federal court, where nobody is supposed to know about them.”

Admitting that mistakes had been made, Aldrich says it looks like the New York Times‘ source may have been one of the complainants, whom he believes his company fired “in connection with not getting the drawings done fast enough for the changes in the vehicles.”

According to Aldrich, this may just be an example of a disgruntled ex-employee taking advantage of federal whistleblower laws that do nothing to discourage someone from taking a parting shot after getting walked out the front door.

Aldrich denies the rest of the allegations in the complaint, in which he is now apparently well versed.

“One of the allegations, apparently, was that we had spent the $6.7 million on other things,” says Aldrich, who claims the federal government has already audited the company’s expenditures, which he says went to buy extra buildings, blowers for the paint sheds, and other items to speed up production.

He also denies any allegation that his company knowingly presented Cougars with armor gaps for inspection. “I can publicly say that we have not shipped a vehicle, and never even shown a vehicle, knowing it had any armor problems.”

Aldrich takes issue with the New York Times piece characterizing the vehicles sent over as “prototypes” that had to be recalled. In fact, he says, some of the Cougars already in use had to be brought back not for recall issues, but to retrofit a new transmission into them so all the vehicles would have identical gear systems.

Beyond saying the only injury in a Cougar has been a broken wrist, Aldrich declines comment when asked about the Cougar’s capabilities.

“This is a war of escalation, so we don’t publish what we can do. We understate it because we know the bad guys will read this stuff. If we say what kind of blast it can endure, the bad guys will hit us with X pounds of TNT. If that doesn’t work, the next day it will be X pounds plus five.

“We’re trying to help defeat the opposition, not accelerate the game of escalation.”

But it still looks like Force Protection faces an escalating public relations battle after the New York Times characterized it as a “small company in South Carolina,” and went on to use the word “blunders” to describe some of its managerial actions.

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