US Army and armor-maker embroiled in debate over body-armor safety

Army refutes claims that Pinnacle Armor's product superior to troops' armor, and plans to brief Congress on subject.

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An NBC report on the US Army's rejection of a new type of body armor has sparked a widespread debate over the safety of US troops in the field.

The NBC investigative report, which aired over the weekend, suggested that Interceptor body armor – which the Army current uses, calling it "the best in the world" – may be inferior to a privately-developed armor called Dragon Skin. Dragon Skin, made of a series of overlapping ceramic disks "like Medieval chainmail" that defend against bullets, has been sought by military personnel and their families in the belief it offers better protection than the Army-issued Interceptor vests, NBC said.

NBC News tracked down the man who helped design Interceptor a decade ago, Jim Magee, a retired Marine colonel:
LISA MYERS: What is the best body armor available today in your view?
JIM MAGEE: Dragon Skin is the best out there, hands down. It's better than the Interceptor. It is state of the art. In some cases, it's two steps ahead of anything I've ever seen.
MYERS: You developed the body armor that the Army is using today.
MAGEE: That's correct.
MYERS: And you say Dragon Skin is better?
MAGEE: Yes. And I think anybody in my industry would say the same thing were they to be perfectly honest about it.

But Brig. Gen. Mark Brown, who oversees the Army's body-armor program, told NBC that the Dragon Skin armor "failed miserably" in Army testing, which NBC says he suggested led to its ban from use by personnel. But NBC notes that the Army banned soldiers from using Dragon Skin two months before the Army tested the armor.

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The report adds that the CIA has tested and approved the armor for use by its own operatives, and one former Army ballistics expert, Nevin Rupert, says he was fired for supporting the use of Dragon Skin, and believes that the Army is eschewing the armor because "it threatened their program and mission funding."

NBC later posted the results of its own testing, which found Dragon Skin to be superior to the Army's Interceptor vests. In two tests, performed earlier this month by the Beschussamt Mellrichstadt laboratory in Germany, an Interceptor vest was penetrated by gunfire after several shots, while the same number of shots did not penetrate a Dragon Skin vest. A third test of a Dragon Skin vest against a more lethal caliber of bullet - one that the Army does not require its vests to protect against - also showed no pentration of the armor.

The Associated Press writes that, in response to the NBC report, the Army "in a rare move" released the results of its Dragon Skin testing on Monday. In a press conference (transcript available on the Defense Department's website) General Brown said that the armor suffered "catastrophic failures," failing to stop 13 of 48 armor-piercing rounds.

"Zero failures is the correct answer," he said. "One failure is sudden death and you lose the game."
Brown added that the armor failed to endure required temperatures shifts - from minus 20 degrees to 120 above zero - which weakened the adhesive holding the discs together. And he said that the Dragon Skin's heavy weight was also a problem for soldiers who need to carry a lot of gear.
The Dragon Skin, he said, weighs 47.5 pounds, compared to the Army-issued Interceptor armor, which weighs 28 pounds.

The NBC report was also met with some skepticism on military community websites. DefenseTech, a military technology blog run by Military.com, points out that in NBC's video of the armor tests, the Dragon Skin armor is on a flat surface, which maximizes the overlap of the protective disks that make up the armor. When worn, however, the armor would be curved, reducing the disks' protection. DefenseTech also notes that the armor's excessive weight reduces its "operational suitability." A post at the military website ProfessionalSoldier.com, run by and for members of the Special Forces, also criticizes the testing in a lengthy article endorsed by the site.

Stars and Stripes, a daily paper for the US military authorized by the Defense Department, writes that Murray Neal, the founder of Dragon Skin manufacturer Pinnacle Armor, says the Army is lying about the test results.

Murray Neal said eight of the rounds that penetrated the Dragon Skin vests were specifically aimed where there were no ballistic discs.
Of the remaining shots that went through the vests, five needed to be verified by a follow-up test, but the Army failed to do so, Neal said.
As for the Army's contention that the mesh of ceramic discs falls apart after being exposed to extreme temperatures, Neal said, "That's a bold-face lie."
Army spokesman Paul Boyce said Neal has made similar accusations against the Army in the past, but, "the test results speak for themselves."

ABC News affiliate KFSN in Fresno, Calif., reports that Mr. Neal says third-party testing is needed to resolve the issue of which armor, Interceptor or Dragon Skin, is safer. "[The test] won't be conducted by the Army. It won't be conducted by me. That's the whole issue here."

Military.com reports that Brown said the Army has "gotten a flurry of interest" from Capitol Hill since the NBC report was released, and that the Army will be meeting with members of Congress this week to discuss the armor issue.

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