Prior to Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, Department of Defense (DOD) personnel with flame resistant (FR) uniforms were mainly aviators, fuel handlers, and tank crews. With the growing prevalence of the improvised explosive device (IED) threat, all ground forces serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have been exposed to the possibility of fire-related injuries. The Ike Skelton National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011 extended to 2015 the authority to procure fire resistant rayon fiber for the production of uniforms from certain foreign countries, provided by section 829 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008 and originally set to expire in 2013. This letter discusses the briefing developed in response to the requirement in the Ike Skelton National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011 to report on the supply chain for FR fiber for the production of military uniforms. Specifically, the act required GAO to analyze several elements of the supply chain, including the current and anticipated sources of FR rayon fiber; actions DOD has taken to identify alternatives to FR rayon fiber; impediments to the use of such alternatives; and the impediments posed to efficient procurement of FR rayon fiber by existing statutory or regulatory requirements; among others. On March 15, 2011, we provided a draft of the briefing to Congress to satisfy this requirement.
In summary, an Austrian-headquartered company is presently the only source used for FR rayon fiber to support the manufacturing of FR uniforms for DOD. However, the department has taken a number of steps over the past 5 years to identify alternative FR fabric blends. For example, the military services have sought fabric/garment submissions through sources sought notices, market surveys, or solicitations in 2006, 2007, 2009, and 2010 to explore available options and have tested a wide variety of FR fabrics. Based on our review of military service testing, it is unclear if FR rayon’s flame resistant characteristics are better than all other alternatives. Further, some DOD and industry officials stated that FR rayon has several advantages, including improved comfort, moisture absorbency, and ability to be dyed, while others have stated that fabrics with FR rayon tend to be less durable than those using other FR fibers. With respect to legal requirements applying to the production and use of FR rayon fibers, immediately relevant to our assessment was the Berry Amendment, which generally prohibits the use of funds available to DOD for the procurement of certain items when not grown, reprocessed, reused, or produced in the United States, absent an exception. Two exceptions relevant to FR rayon fiber are the general availability exception under the Berry Amendment itself, which results in a domestic nonavailability determination (DNAD), and the exception unique to FR rayon provided by the authority found in section 829 of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2008. DOD indicated that a DNAD issued in 2001 for rayon yarn for use in military clothing and textile items provides the basis for the waiver presently used for purchase of FR rayon for military uniforms. We are not making any recommendations in this report.