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High-Tech Warriors Go on the Defensive : Old Crows Society Irked at Scandals’ Effect on Its Image

Times Staff Writer

The 5,000-odd Old Crows who flocked to Anaheim this week arrived with their feathers ruffled and their beaks bent out of joint.

Engineers, program managers, executives, salesmen and military officers, they came for the annual trade show and top-secret technical conference of the Assn. of Old Crows, the nation’s electronic warfare fraternity.

These Crows--who get their moniker from a World War II code name--are the bulk of the NATO-bloc’s experts in the high-technology equipment that detects and defeats enemy radars and communications systems.

But at the Anaheim Convention Center, the Crows were grousing.

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In breaks from the classified seminars and exhibit visits that were the main business of the conference, they angrily objected to the image they fear their business--and the defense industry in general--has acquired as a perpetrator of procurement sleaze and a vendor of malfunctioning gadgetry.

“The general public,” complained Mark H. Ronald, president of a $120-million Pennsylvania defense electronics firm, “perceives that we’re some sort of snake oil salesmen.”

“We’re bitter,” said Hal Gershanoff, publisher of the Journal of Electronic Defense, the Crows’ professional publication. “People have been painted with a brush that is as wide as Maine to Florida.”

The frustration--a refrain heard often at defense industry gatherings--competed with the surreal, almost carnival-like atmosphere at the convention center.

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At one booth, Loral Corp. had set up a shooting gallery. Visitors playfully took aim at a line of plywood crows sitting on a picket fence--a lure to invite inquiries about Loral’s serious business of manufacturing radar sensors, intelligence management systems and airborne antennas.

‘A Political Thing’

At other booths, Litton Industries and ITT employed magicians to promote sophisticated electronic measures and countermeasures.

TRW, though, drew the biggest crowd in the exhibit hall when it tuned out the videos about its integrated electronic warfare system and tuned in the Dodger-Met showdown Wednesday evening.

The amusements underscored the trade show’s less-than-urgent tenor. “We’re not going to sell anything,” one marketing representative confided. “The Old Crows--it’s largely a political thing,” he explained. “It’s considered important to be here.”

Important, because the Crows are considered quietly influential, a group whose members have the ear of Pentagon planners and have been known to influence the nation’s military purchasing. The association’s officers include active and retired generals and admirals; the group conducts major studies for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

“They have tended to be--at least they have the reputation and there are cases where they have been--a very strong lobbying organization to preserve a program which may or may not deserve to be preserved,” said one electronic warfare analyst. “It’s one of the biggest poker games there is in the country with regard to the electronics world.”

Officials of the group insist its importance is exaggerated.

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“We do not lobby, we don’t have a PAC (political action committee), we don’t even have a standing committee for congressional relations,” said Gus Slayton, the Crows’ executive director.

What the Crows proudly do, though, is offer an extraordinary forum for government and industry to exchange secret information about the futuristic military threats faced by the U.S. and its allies and the sensitive technologies being developed to detect and confound attacks.

Thus, conference attendees--with adequate security clearances--could attend discussions of such topics as “Soviet Radio Electronic Combat and Its Impact on Future Electronic Warfare Planning” and “Anti-Ship Missile Defense Today and Tomorrow.”

“The real important part of the conference is not on the display floor,” Gershanoff said. “It’s behind the closed doors of those classified sessions.”

The Old Crows carry enough weight to have drawn Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci to address their annual banquet Wednesday night. The deputy supreme commander of NATO forces in Europe and a panoply of U.S. admirals and generals spoke as well.

Yet the Crows, nonetheless, seemed to be in a defensive mood.

A Washington consultant who claims membership in the group, William M. Galvin, is at the center of the ongoing probe of trafficking in Pentagon procurement data. Victor D. Cohen, a high-level Air Force deputy who serves as an editorial adviser to the Crows’ journal, also is under investigation. One of the group’s founders, also a consultant, was charged in an earlier procurement scandal.

Defense Not Amok

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Slayton complains that the organization shouldn’t have to shoulder the burden of a few members’ alleged misconduct.

“Out of 25,000 members, there’s probably a rapist in there,” he said. “But we didn’t rape anyone.”

The attitude on the show floor was that it is government regulation--not the defense industry--that is running amok.

James P. Edwards III, a vice president of Austin, Tex.-based Tracor Aerospace, complained about Pentagon procurement rules that make it impossible for contractors to offer military visitors the courtesy of a free cup of coffee.

“We’ve got Congress decreeing things, we’ve got the Department of Defense decreeing things and we’ve got each of the services decreeing things,” said Edwards, whose firm makes chaff and flare dispensers. “And it’s all uncoordinated.”

Arnold, president of AEL Industries, said contractors--vigorously competing for shares of a no-longer-growing procurement budget--are getting no guidance from the Pentagon on the rules for gathering the kind of market information that leads to successful bids.

“You need data to compete,” he said. “But the rules aren’t clear, even though the government says they are.”

Carlucci, in a question-and-answer session with journalists at the conference, said it would be unfair to single out the electronic warfare community as a disproportionate contributor to Pentagon scandals. And he agreed that the procurement process was needlessly complex.

But Carlucci said the Crows are just squawking when they object that the Pentagon’s rules are ambiguous.

“There are some very sophisticated people in industry,” the defense secretary said. “I can’t believe most of them can’t tell right from wrong.”


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