Fat Leonard's Rise: It's Not That Complicated
Updated: Dec 5, 2021
I first met Leonard Francis in Singapore in 1999. He was what the US Navy calls a husbanding agent...sort of a general contractor that provides all of the items a ship would require to conduct a foreign port visit. Think of everything from utilities...to food...to fuel etc. You see, the US Navy is second to none in sustained operations at-sea, primarily due to a complex and highly effective logistics system. Combine that with a US Navy ship's ability to defend itself at sea due to state of the art defense-in-depth weapons systems, and they are truly unparalleled. However, when in a foreign port, those advantages disappear. So when a US Navy ship arrived in a foreign port, one of the first individuals to board the ship was the husbanding agent for that port. At the time I was in the navy, husbanding agents were awarded exclusive contracts for each foreign port. In 1999, Leonard Francis had that contract for Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, but not the contract for other more visited ports in Thailand, Hong Kong and the Philippines. My first impression was that he was gregarious, spoke good English and seemed competent, but pretty much just a husbanding agent. So what changed?
The Navy's 9-11
12 October 2000 was basically the US Navy's 9-11 moment. The USS COLE was attacked by suicide bombers while pier-side in Yemen killing 15 crewmembers. Nothing was the same after that. Force protection for ships in foreign ports was taken to extraordinary lengths to ensure it never happened again. This was done by detailed edicts, guidance, tactics, training and procedures required to be in place before a US Navy ship was allowed in to a foreign port. Many of these requirements could only be fulfilled by the local husbanding agent. This would include items such as floating barriers, picket boats and increased pier security. These all cost money of course. Enter Leonard, who quickly realized that providing these services would certainly add to his bottom line. For the rest of my time in Singapore (until 2004), this was the state of play in all the Southeast Asian ports. I have no doubt that Glenn Defense revenues increased during this time period, but whether the Navy was "overcharged" for these specific services is unknown. I would venture, however, that this increased revenue did provide Glenn Defense the resources to obtain the husbanding agent contracts in Hong Kong, Thailand, Philippines, India and Australia...by 2004....a remarkably short period of time for such an expansion. Another dynamic during this time frame was a rising tension between those naval officers responsible for force protection (ship commanders and their leadership) and those naval officers responsible for contract oversight of the husbanding agents. During my time in Singapore, this was never really reconciled. So why didn't US Navy ships just remain at sea, and no port visits until the "threat" was minimized? That was tried for a while, until pressure was exerted on Pacific navy leadership by the foreign countries themselves, to continue the visits. I recall being summoned once in person, by a US Ambassador, to explain why Navy ship visits to a country were not being permitted.
There is nothing new regarding a bit of tension with regards to the US Navy and the husbanding agent relationship. Checks and balances are to be expected. Leonard certainly took advantage of providing these new force protection services, as there was really no cost precedent, so he could essentially determine the market value. Good business practice? Predatory? Maybe....but probably not illegal. I recall being in heated discussions between Navy Regional Contracting Center (NRCC) Singapore and COMLOG WESTPAC on the cost of these force protection services. The end result was usually sort of: pay whatever cost needed to meet the requirement and avoid another COLE.
Now when I hear gag worthy statements from navy officers saying "we depended on Leonard" or self-serving twaddle from Leonard saying "he had the navy by the balls"...or worse...he somehow believes he was some sort of pseudo navy agent...it's truly cringe worthy. I would argue that Leonard's increased force protection revenue and subsequent expansion from 2001-2004 emboldened him to aggressively pursue more criminal avenues in order to get US Navy ships into his sprawling Indo-Asian empire. So if Leonard was overcharging the Navy in the early 2000's, why was this not pursued? Why was he so easily allowed to expand into all of Southeast Asia? If these questions have been answered, I would love to know the results. If not, then I really don't feel that there has been any sort of real introspection on this at all.