Graham and Levin lead fight on Cougar

Some powerful members of the South Carolina and Michigan delegations are throwing their weight behind a blast-protective vehicle that has become increasingly popular with the Marine Corps and Army, trying to protect troops from roadside bombs in Iraq.

The vehicle, known as the Cougar — a “hulking beast of a truck,” as the Marines like to call it — is the product of a small business, Force Protection Industries Inc., in Ladson, S.C.

Force Protection has grown from a nine-person company in 2003 to about 365 employees today.

But with rapid success also comes the age-old question of how to keep a steady flow of Pentagon orders so that the company can keep its beefed-up work force and its production lines in operation. Starting and stopping production repeatedly can hurt a small company, said Michael Aldrich, the company’s vice president.

“We would like a little more visibility of where the train is going before you are on it,” he said.

That is where Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) came to the company’s rescue as the Senate Armed Services Committee marked up the 2007 defense authorization bill.

Spartan Chassis Inc. in Michigan, a subsidiary of Spartan Motors, builds the chassis for the Cougar. With support from committee Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) and Levin, the panel’s ranking member, Graham inserted a provision to add $100 million to the Navy’s procurement budget to buy the Cougar and its larger, brother vehicle, the Buffalo, used for mine clearance.

As soon as Force Protection found out that the Cougar and Buffalo did not receive money in the House version of the 2007 defense authorization bill, “we ran to Senator John Warner [chairman of the Senate panel] and Senator Levin,” Aldrich said. The extra money can buy up to 150 vehicles, according to the company.

The $100 million extra in the Senate coincided with a $50 million Pentagon award for 79 more Cougar vehicles. The contract includes field support, training and spare parts.

The company received a contract for 27 Cougars for the Marine Corps in April 2004. That was followed by a Pentagon contract for 122 vehicles for all services in May 2005.

But the company still has to make sure that the $100 million it received from the Senate will stay as part of the conference report between the two chambers.

It is in the appropriations process where the test lies for the small company. To boost its image on the Hill, the company hired Congressional Strategies LLC in February, according to lobby registration filings. And Aldrich is in Washington this week meeting with lawmakers.

While Force Protection has some strong supporters in the Senate, it also has at least one champion in the House: Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee. Wilson told The Hill that he plans to write a letter to the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee to raise the issue and ensure funding for more Cougars.

“It works, and it is protecting American lives. It enhances our ability to travel anywhere and anytime,” said Wilson. He has visited the company’s plant in Ladson, where he was allowed to drive one of the vehicles. He also visited the maintenance depot in Balad, Iraq, he said.

The Cougar “jumps out at you as very innovative. If you were a bad guy, it would be very intimidating to see this,” Wilson said.

The Cougar is much larger than a Humvee and has heavier armor. Its success is attributed to its V-shaped hull, designed to withstand mine blasts.

“More than 100 of them are deployed and there have been no deaths, and it is due to their V-shape design,” Wilson said. He said the $100 million is “crucial” to keep the Cougar production line in place.

As the company is pushing to receive the extra $100 million, it is also vying for a lucrative contract for the so-called Iraqi Light Armored Vehicle.

The U.S. Army Tank Automotive and Armaments Command is planning to award a contract by the end of May. The contract can go up to 765 vehicles, Aldrich said.

The company has teamed up with BAE Systems to share the production of the vehicles, should it receive the contract. General Dynamics Land Systems is also competing for the contract. Others potentially vying for it are Textron, Oshkosh, Steward & Stevenson, Krauss Maffei and Armoured Technology Systems.

If Force Protection does not receive the contract for the Iraqi vehicles it plans to rely on the Army’s plan to buy 250 Buffalo vehicles between 2007 and 2009, Aldrich said.