WASHINGTON — A Justice Department investigation into whether an Ohio-based military contractor took shortcuts in its production of military combat helmets has led to a massive Army recall.
Army officials said Monday they were asking soldiers to check whether they were wearing one of the 44,000 helmets produced by ArmorSource LLC that are currently in use and to return them immediately.
Brig. Gen. Peter Fuller, who oversees soldier equipment contracts for the Army, said he doesn't know if any injuries have resulted from the allegedly defective helmets, although he said he doubts it.
The helmets, which have been distributed to U.S. service personnel worldwide, including Afghanistan, had passed initial ballistic testing. But after being alerted to the Justice Department probe into ArmorSource that began last fall, the Army conducted a second batch of tests.
These tests showed that the helmets might not protect a solider against a rare but "worst case scenario" of multiple gun shots at a specific angle.
"We didn't see consistent results," Fuller said.
ArmorSource, formerly known as Rabintex USA and based in Hebron, Ohio, is one of four primary producers for combat helmets for the Army. The company also is a subcontractor for the Marine helmet.
The Army received the test results last week and issued the recall Thursday night. The service waited another 24 hours to publicly announce the decision.
Army officials said the quiet disclosure — after the work week had ended and the financial markets closed — was because they wanted to notify Congress and other senior military officials first.
The Justice Department referred questions on the investigation to the U.S. attorney's office in eastern Texas. A spokeswoman there confirmed an investigation was under way but declined to provide details, including whether the case was criminal.
In a statement posted to its Web site, ArmorSource said it hadn't been told about the Army's decision to recall its helmets and has no more information. The company said it would cooperate with all government inquiries.
The Army Times, a newspaper that covers military issues, on Monday quoted an internal Army message that suggested ArmorSource was negligent.
"There is evidence that ArmorSource and Rabintex (helmets) were produced using unauthorized manufacturing practices, defective materials and improper quality procedures which could potentially reduce ballistic and fragmentation protection," according to the May 14 statement.
In 2006, the Army hired the company to deliver 102,000 helmets. ArmorSource had delivered most of the helmets when the Army complained of chipped paint. While only cosmetic, the Army considered the chipped paint a breech of contract and terminated the deal with the company in February.
By then, the Army already had 99,000 of the 102,000 helmets. Of that amount, 44,000 had been issued to soldiers worldwide and 55,000 were in storage.
The Justice Department inquiry was already under way. The investigation initially looked at the company's dealings with the Marines. In January, the investigation expanded to include the Army contract with ArmorSource.
Fuller said the Army decided to retest the helmets at the urging of the Justice Department.
Army officials said the service planned to destroy the defective helmets and may receive compensation as a result of the Justice Department investigation.
The recall represents about 4 percent of the Army's helmet inventory.