From August 2012 to March 2013, sailors deployed on South Korean Aegis ship DDG-993 were reliant on lifejackets that, unbeknownst to them, might not have saved them in case of emergency.
Lawmaker Kim Kwang-jin of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy raised this issue in a report last week, not long after a similar report from the National Assembly faulted the South Korean Army for its poor quality body armor.
“I cannot believe our sailors were serving for a year and a half with lifejackets that don’t do their jobs,” said Kim. “We have to double-check the South Korean Navy’s quality guarantee system for its equipment and inspect all of the lifejackets that are already provided to our sailors.”
According to the data Kim received from the South Korean Navy and Defense Agency for Technology and Quality, the sailors in DDG-993 were provided with 128 lifejackets in August 2012. As the number of jackets exceeded the number of sailors, 18 of them were returned to the ROK Navy depot later, leaving a total of 110 lifejackets on the boat.
But in March 2013, during a maintenance check by the South Korean Navy, it was revealed that 94 percent of lifejackets (103 jackets) failed to pass safety regulations due to under-performing buoyant materials in them.
‘… most of the under-performance in the South Korean military’s gear is rooted in the private contract system and the Ministry of Defense’s tendency to prefer cheaper products’
Furthermore, many buoyant materials found during the maintenance check were already marked with an “X” on their surface, indicating that the jackets might have never performed properly from the moment of their purchase.
Fortunately, Kim’s office confirmed to NK News that the Navy has already discarded all the under-performing lifejackets and bought new sets for its sailors.
“I think most of the under-performance in the South Korean military’s gear is rooted in the private contract system and the Ministry of Defense’s tendency to prefer cheaper products,” said a former South Korean Army officer who wished to remain anonymous.
“This lifejacket case is really similar to the case of useless South Korean body armor. In Korea, much of the military gear is made by companies under the South Korean Veterans Association.”
The former officer said that relying on solely products from these companies leads to inferior competition in the market and sometimes even a monopoly on the production business.
He stated that there will be a continued need for new military gear, as the South Korean military receives a new supply of freshly conscripted soldiers each year.
“Instead of the South Korean military raising the required quality of the products, they could instead lower it to match the current production level of producers and purchase what the producers can offer.”
He said standing up for higher quality goods might not work as intended.
“If one raises questions about the products that have been in use already in recent decades, the proposition might raise too much attention from the higher command and eventually lead to an inspection on the whistleblower himself,” said the expert. “That is the basic mechanism behind how under-performing products can keep flowing into the South Korean military.”
He believes that in order to solve the monopoly on military gear, South Korea will have to adopt a “fair competition” policy of choosing from among multiple producers.
“The South Korean military should be provided with a list of different products to select from, but as of now, some producers are monopolizing the market and administrators are only focusing on buying the cheapest products to save their budgets, and this system will certainly not lead to a stronger military.”
FAILING THE TEST
But questions remain as to why the military inspectors failed to detect the under-performing products in first place. Park, a former South Korean military officer himself, slammed military’s stagnant bureaucracy as the reason for the under-performing gear.
“During peacetime, the maintenance of safety gear is mostly done as a mere formality. Unless the equipment is being used day by day, there is no clear way to check its performance,” said Park, pointing out that there is very little chance that sailors in the front line, who are already over-burdened with administrative tasks, would’ve scrutinized the pros and cons of each of the safety gear they use.
Park said that even if juniors have scrutinized the products, they would be criticized by their seniors for “not hiding the problem under the carpet.”
“For example, lets assume that junior officer reported the under-performance of buoyant materials in those lifejackets. The result of whistleblowing would not be the purchase of new lifejackets for sailors, but criticism from his/her senior for ‘letting it slip past in the first place.’”
‘Often the inspectors and the unit commanders are in a senior-junior relationship; this leads to collusion between the inspector and the unit’
Park clearly stated that inspections alone cannot solve the current issues in the military.
“Often the inspectors and the unit commanders are in a senior-junior relationship; this leads to collusion between the inspector and the unit. In this case, the highest unit commander would ‘offer’ one or two minor safety violations which the inspector would take as ‘prizes’ to report to their seniors.”
During this bureaucratic process, junior officers in the front line usually get sacrificed as “prizes” for inspectors.
“Current inspections only maintain the current state of the bureaucracy, so that no one faces obstacles in heading down the path of promotion,” said Park.
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Featured Image: Lifejacket Poses by Martin Cathrae on 2008-06-14 14:26:09