TAMPA — When the military is purchasing weapons and ammunition for foreign partners like those fighting the so-called Islamic State, the cheapest option isn't always the best, some arms makers say.
It's a long-standing concern, one raised again recently by a weapons manufacturer who says her American-manufactured rocket-propelled grenade launchers are far superior to those purchased in April by U.S. Special Operations Command, with headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base.
"I wouldn't let my kid fire one of the ones SOCom just bought if they offered me $10 million," said Merriellyn Kett, owner of RR Defense Systems, a Chicago maker of RPG-7s and other weapons. Instead, she said, the command should buy American.
SOCom recently signed a nearly $9 million contract with Tampa's UDC USA Inc. to purchase foreign-made RPG-7 launchers and ammunition, according to the command, which would not specify the number of weapons involved in the deal.
UDC originally registered in Tampa as Ukrainian Defense Consulting Ltd., according to state records. UDC officials did not return several calls and emails seeking comment for this story.
The SOCom contract was part of a larger 2015 agreement to buy an unspecified number of weapons, ranging from standard U.S. arms like M4 assault rifles, M240 machine guns and grenade launchers, to weapons used by foreign forces like the RPG-7s.
Kett's RPGs were unsuccessfully pitched to the command by Purple Shovel, a prime contractor on that 2015 agreement. Kett said the contract called for more than 4,400 RPG-7 launchers.
SOCom, which reviewed product literature but did not test Kett's weapons, said the decision was based on cost, using a standard evaluation process called "Lowest Price Technically Acceptable."
Known as LPTA, the process seeks products and services at the lowest price possible. It is widely criticized by defense contractors who say that ultimately, the government gets what it pays for, which isn't always in the best interest of the users.
"In general, LPTA seems to cause unwanted behaviors in competitive bid selections," said Gene Moran, executive director of the Florida Defense Contractors Association. "Oftentimes industry sees a selection made based on LPTA that appears to be a good deal in the near-term, but results in selection of relatively inexperienced vendors."
The concern about LPTA contracts is so great that the 2017 Pentagon budget limited their use, preferring to look at the best overall value in most cases.
Despite Kett's complaints, neither she nor anyone else protested the UDC contract, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Lara Bollinger, a SOCom spokeswoman.
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The RPG-7 is the world's most produced antitank weapon. Originally made in 1962 by the Soviet Union, the shoulder-fired, single shot weapon is still frequently seen being carried by jihadis and U.S. allies in the Middle East and elsewhere. More than 40 million have been made, according to Kett's website, with more than 2 million still in use.
Kett, who said she directed delivery of nearly 80,000 40mm grenade launchers to battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan and to more than two-dozen friendly foreign militaries, said her RPG-7 is a superior product because of how it is made.
Unlike those made in the former Soviet bloc, she said her weapon is machined out of ordnance-grade steel instead of being cast, which creates voids in the metal that can break under the tremendous pressure caused when the ammunition is fired.
She said her weapons can fire as many as 1,000 rounds over their life, four times the amount of those produced in the former Soviet bloc. Bollinger, the SOCom spokeswoman, said endurance was not a factor in the contract decision.
Kevin Dockery, a former Army mortar team leader and current weapons expert who has written more than three-dozen books about weapons, agrees that the RPG-7 offered by Kett is superior to foreign-made products.
Having helped design them when he worked with Kett's previous company, he is intimately familiar with them and said they are a better option for U.S. allies.
"The American-made RPG-7 gives them more accurate firepower, so allies can hit what they aim at," he said.
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Kett said SOCom should heed President Donald Trump's "Buy American" edict.
However, while the weapons are foreign-made, Bollinger said the "Buy American" edict was moot because the contract with UDC, which meets federal acquisition regulations, was signed before it went into effect.
Though the contract has already been awarded, Kett suggested a compromise.
Split the contract between her and UDC and see which weapons perform better.
That would allow SOCom "to evaluate the differences between a foreign-made RPG-7 and an American RPG-7," Kett said. "That's fair, and it's in keeping in the spirit of President Trump's executive order. Jobs for Americans."
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.