Your Friendly Neighborhood War Profiteer

It's not just Alliant Techsystems. Hundreds of small Minnesota companies are cashing in on America's defense industry.

Primordial shares office space with Minnesota Wire & Cable, whose defense division launched the Defense Alliance. Minnesota Defense, the defense contracting wing of the company, is an investor in Primordial, providing office space and equipment as part of the package.

Milbert learned early on to court the civilian market alongside the military. Last year he partnered with the leading manufacturer of civilian GPS devices, Magellan. When you're a small company in the defense industry, diversity is key to survival.

Another key: controversial congressional earmarks. "There are good earmarks and bad," Milbert says. "There are the 'bridge to nowhere' earmarks and then there are others, like the one Senator Coleman got us." He's referring to a $390,000 contract to fit the military's tactical ATVs with Primordial route-planning software. Earmarks are "just another tool," he says. "I wouldn't bet my business on it."

The throwable Recon Scout by Recon Robotics
The throwable Recon Scout by Recon Robotics
Chip Laingen, director of Minnesota Defense Alliance
Chip Laingen, director of Minnesota Defense Alliance

Company: Stanley Widmer Associates, Inc.

City: Staples

Product: Ultralight Boat Hull

Funding: Private investment and $4.2 million in Navy and R&D contracts

The fading letters on the aging red water tower on the edge of a town nearly three hours northwest of the Twin Cities spell out, "Staples, MN: 100 Years of Progress."

There isn't much to Staples, but there is an airport—and there's Stanley Widmer, a 71-year-old engineer, inventor, boat builder, and former tank battalion commander for the U.S. Army. In his office, across a country road from airport land, a drafting table holds plans for the ultralight ship hull he has been pushing with an almost evangelical zeal in one form or another since 1969—as a racing boat, or a Coast Guard cruiser, or a Homeland Security shallow-water patrol boat. It was the Navy that finally put money into it, for an unmanned boat mounted with a device that tricks mines into thinking a big ship has arrived and triggers the explosion. A lighter boat is more likely to be sent skyward than shredded by the blast. Oh, and it can take a bullet. "This thing is lighter than water!" Widmer says. "You can shoot all kinds of holes in it and it's still gonna float." The material is a special polymer blend that has "memory." A bullet would merely push the material aside, not blow it apart, and the hole left behind would just close up when the bullet had passed through.

When the cautiously excitable Widmer describes all of this, his hands flutter in exclamation. Asked how many times in his career he's been laughed off as crazy, he leans back in his chair. "Many." Widmer built his first boat when he was 14 years old. He built speedboats in the '70s. He's designed tank parts, golf devices, soda machines, and fire engines. He wears a hearing aid in each ear, consequences of his tank commander days.

"I kind of wrote the guy off as a mad scientist," says the Defense Alliance's Laingen. "But he obviously learned how to market himself."

Sort of. The Office of Naval Research once invited him to fly east and present his idea to important people. He passed, saying he couldn't afford the flight. His company was on life support after a punishing dry spell, but he continued to work the phones, and it eventually paid off. He got Coleman's office on his side. The senator just wrote $3 million for Widmer into the 2008 Defense Appropriations Act. An earlier $1.2 million funded his move into a warehouse space, and he started hiring.

When the prototype boat is done, if the Navy still wants it, they'll have tooling rights, not the patent. That means they can order as many of Widmer's boats as they fancy, and he gets a royalty on each one.

The prototype hull is being molded in Wisconsin. At his Staples warehouse, a trailer waits to fetch the boat. An engine waits to be dropped in. Models and sketches of the boat lie about, and tossed-off blueprints are scattered, dusty and boot-printed, on the floor. In a separate room, two of Widmer's six employees sit at computers, where they draft components of the boat and test it using computer modeling. The real-world test won't happen for months. Once the molding is complete, Widmer will "put it in a lake somewhere and see how it works."

If the boat works well, there will likely be more millions, and he's already got those spent. Back at his desk he pulls out a map of the town's airport. He's drawn in a full start-to-finish manufacturing facility for his boats. And he's extended the runway to accommodate the C-130 military cargo planes that would come to load the boats into their cavernous bellies and ship them to whatever naval base required them. "I've had some Democrats out here," he says coyly. "And they say they know where to find the money for the expansion."

Then he chuckles a bit—acknowledging that persistence can only get you so far. "You never know," he says.

Company: Airborne Data Systems, Inc.

City: Redwood Falls

Product: Airborne remote sensing and surveillance gear

Funding: $142,000 in 2007 Army contracts

David Fuhr flew aerial surveillance missions for the U.S. military in Vietnam. "All expenses paid," he jokes. A commercial pilot and aircraft mechanic when he was drafted, Fuhr came home from the war and flew agricultural planes—crop-dusters and the like—for 30 years. "I've always made my money with airplanes," he says.

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