Body Armor Wars: The Way Forward

BY Herschel Smith
9 years, 9 months ago

There have been recent calls from members of the Senate for investigations into claims that Pinnacle’s Dragon Skin armor is better than the currently deployed body armor.  Response from the Army was swift and direct.  This article covers some recent history of body armor and the current “dust-up” in the media and Senate, and briefly examines claims and counter-claims.  A way forward is recommended for final disposition of the issues surrounding body armor.  This article has a companion article: Gear and Equipment Problems for the Marines.

NBC News recently did an exposé on the Dragon Skin body armor, raising again the question whether it is superior to the currently deployed body armor (this issue has been followed for years by Soldiers for the Truth).  Before we examine the claims and counterclaims, some history must be rehearsed so that words and concepts and not read and discussed in a vacuum.

The Interceptor body armor system (IBA) was deployed during the initial stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  The IBA consists mainly of an Outer Tactical Vest (the shell), soft armor panels, and Small Arms Protective Inserts (SAPI), hard ceramic plates designed to prevent penetration of the 7.62 mm round.  The soft armor is designed to prevent penetration of a 9 mm round and shrapnel from some explosive ordnance.  It covers approximately the entire surface area of the OTV.  There were initially two main SAPI plates, one for the front and the other for the back.

The ballistic capabilities of the SAPI were upgraded, and hence the currently deployed plate is referred to as ESAPI, for enhanced SAPI.  There are also side SAPI plates, and during the first – and sometimes the second – deployment of Soldiers and Marines to OIF, wearing the side SAPIs was optional.  Many Soldiers and Marines chose not to wear them, since as a carrier the IBA was not designed to hold the side SAPIs (I’m looking at the IBA shell as I write).  The side SAPIs were worn in conjunction with the original IBA with use of a molle system.

It was discovered that enemy snipers were aiming for gaps in the SAPI plate coverage (e.g., the side torso under the arms), and so wearing the side SAPIs eventually became mandatory.  The heavy battlefield weight, along with the lack of integration of the side SAPIs into the shell, caused the US Marine Corps to revise its body armor system to the Modular Tactical Vest, or MTV (the commercial version is the Spartan 2 Assault Vest, from Tactical Applications Group).  Having put on both the IBA and the MTV (or Spartan 2) I can attest to the improvements of the MTV over the Interceptor.  Some Marines are still being deployed with the IBA rather than the MTV, and are choosing to purchase the Spartan 2 shell themselves (and transfer the soft panels and SAPI plates to the new carrier).

If the reader recalls seeing video from Iraq, the vests that the soldiers are wearing always seem to be “hiked up” in the back (with very little lower back protection).  As one NCO in the 101st Airborne told me, “the front SAPI is low, the rear SAPI is high, and we hang equipment on the front of our vests using molle loops and carabiners.  Why do you think that we walk leaning backwards?  We’re trying to keep from falling over forwards.”  Battlefield weight (and weight distribution) is a huge deal.  This NCO told me that without the order to wear the side SAPIs, he would choose not to in spite of the increased risk.  More on battlefield weight later.

The new Marine MTV raises the SAPI in the front a little, lowers it in the back a little, and makes use of the soft armor panels more efficiently (it avoids doubling over of the soft armor in the shoulder area with the IBA and deploys the soft panels to their fullest extent).  It fully integrates the side SAPIs into the outer shell with a carrier for the plates, and it provides soft panel neck and groin protection.  Contrary to the IBA which places the full weight of the soft armor and SAPI plates on the shoulders, its design hugs the body and places the weight on the hips, much like an internal frame backpack.  Finally, the MTV has a quick release system, a system that is designed with a single pull cord that instantly disassembles the vest, typically used during escape situations when someone is trapped in a vehicle rollover or weighed down in deep water.  This feature is particularly popular with Marines and especially Navy Corpsmen who want to get injured Marines out of their gear quickly.  The Marines with whom I have talked have spoken very approvingly of the MTV (Spartan 2).  It is popular, the improved features are important and valuable, and it represents a quantifiable improvement over previous versions.

But in spite of the superiority of the MTV to the IBA, both systems use the same philosophical approach: an overall carrier, holding soft ballistic panels designed to stop very small arms (e.g., 9 mm and shrapnel) supplemented by SAPI plates of some finite surface area (in the front, back and sides) designed to stop 7.62 mm rounds from AK-47s.  Now comes Pinnacle’s Dragon Skin, with a completely different philosophical approach to body armor.

Dragon Skin uses an interconnected system of ballistic discs held together with adhesive.  The accolades are certainly impressive, but as soon as the NBC report was issued, the Department of Defense came to the defense of the IBA and leveled some significant criticisms against the Dragon Skin.

In response to a May 17 NBC News report challenging the Army’s use of Interceptor body armor vs. the newer “Dragon Skin? armor developed by Pinnacle Armor Inc., Brown today released information about the testing that ruled out Dragon Skin a year ago.

The tests were conducted May 16 to 19, 2006, at H.P. White labs near Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. The Pinnacle armor was subjected to the same tests Interceptor body armor goes through, first being X-rayed and analyzed and then undergoing a series of live-fire tests, Brown said. The live-fire tests included room-temperature tests, harsh environment tests, and durability and drop tests.

Of the eight Pinnacle vests tested, four of them failed the tests, with 13 rounds penetrating completely on the first or second shot, Brown said. After the first complete penetration, the vests technically failed the test, but the Army continued the testing to be fair, he said.

The Pinnacle vests also were subjected to extreme temperature variations, from minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, which would be a realistic cycle if the equipment was loaded onto a plane and flown to the Middle East, Brown said. These temperature tests caused the adhesive holding the Dragon Skin’s protective discs together to fail, and the discs gathered at the bottom of the vest, leaving gaps in protection, he said.

Brown also noted that the Dragon Skin vests are significantly heavier and thicker than the Interceptor vests. Dragon Skin vests in size extra large are 47.5 pounds and 1.7 to 1.9 inches thick; the Interceptor vests in size large, which offer an equivalent coverage area, weigh 28 pounds and are 1.3 inches thick.

“Bottom line is, it does not meet Army standards,? Brown said of the Pinnacle body armor.

Brown showed reporters videos of the tests, which were supervised by the chief executive officer of Pinnacle. He also displayed the actual vests that were tested, with markers showing the penetration sites.

The Army did not initially release the information about the tests because of possible security concerns, Brown said. “We are facing a very media-savvy enemy,? he said. “They’re not only media-savvy, they are Internet savvy. … Everything that we put out into the public domain, we pretty much assume that they get. We don’t like to discuss our vulnerabilities and our counters to the vulnerabilities in the open public.?

However, after the NBC report, Army leaders felt they needed to counter any doubts in the minds of servicemembers and their families, Brown said. “Our soldiers and, more importantly, the families – the wives, the children, the parents – have to have confidence that our soldiers have the best equipment in the world,? he said.

For the sake of clarity, with the addition of the soft panel groin protection and removable soft panel neck protection, the total weight of the MTV is over 30 lbs (similar to the current IBA, although the army plans on issuing revised sets that weigh less).  Slab at OpFor has a scathing response to the ‘Dragon Skin’ dust-up (and more here and here).  But the most powerful point made by OpFor is that of battlefield weight.  It must be remembered that body armor is not the only thing on the Soldier or Marine who is patrolling.  He also has: a hydration system (i.e., camelback), his weapon, ammunition (and the SAW gunners carry a heavier weapon and ammunition drums), and other gear.  This heavy battlefield weight has led to sprained and broken ankles, broken legs, sprained knees, and much pain and exhaustion.

But the problem with scathing critiques, claims by Pinnacle, counterclaims by the DoD, rebuttals and more counter-rebuttals, is that the public is left not knowing what or whom to believe.  The situation is left to appear as if someone is being dishonest (or at least, not forthcoming), and perhaps someone is.  Therefore, we recommend the following ‘going forward position’ regarding these issues.

Congress should specifically make the funds available (and the DoD should allocate them and support to the extent necessary) the hiring of a completely independent forensic and mechanical engineering consulting firm.  Among the contractural obligations of this firm would be at least (but not limited to) the following:

  1. The development of finite element models of the IBA/MTV soft panels and SAPI plates and the Dragon Skin armor systems.
  2. The use of these models to assess previous (and future) catastrophic through-wall failures.
  3. Development of a Monte Carlo analysis (based on previous actual shots to Soldiers and Marines) to assess the significance of surface area unprotected by SAPI plates and the risk involved with this body armor philosophy versus the Dragon Skin.
  4. Forensic engineering of previous testing failures of the Dragon Skin body armor.
  5. Modeling and testing of brittle fracture of ceramic SAPI plates upon being dropped or taking rounds.
  6. Statistical and engineering comparison and contrast of all test data for the Dragon Skin and IBA/MTV.
  7. A formal cost-benefit analysis of the body armor systems.
  8. If deemed necessary, further testing of the body armor systems under the supervision of the engineering consultants.
  9. An assessment of funtionality, ability to manufacture and deploy, and quality assurance programs associated with the body armor systems, to include perhaps the most important issue — battlefield weight.
  10. Finally, a report to be issued to the DoD and congress, with redacted versions made available in the public domain.

The Dragon Skin armor system might have been issued to body guards for high ranking officials and top military brass in Iraq, and it doesn’t matter whether these body guards were active duty military or private contractors like Blackwater.  Standing guard for finite periods of time in 48 lbs. of weight is not the same thing as living in your body armor around the clock with additional battlefield weight.  In the end, it will likely be battlefield weight that wins the day, and this conclusion will likely be substantiated and approved by the grunt in the field, MOS infantry.

But this conclusion needs to be formulated with independence and certified with a professional engineering seal.  Like our friends at US Cavalry On Point say, it is the Soldier and Marine who stand to gain.  An ancillary benefit is that a comprehensive and independent study would silence the moralistic and preening critics of the IBA/MTV.

  • ajacksonian

    One of the major complaints that I have seen from the field is the actual weight and encumberance of the current system and its lack of flexibility, both for body motion and protection. Full pack weight is a high determiner as well as the combat load weight. Weight is primary, but flexibility, and being able to manuever on the ground with gear is also an ergonomic factor for long-term use and wear on the body of equipment. Additionally, in extreme temperature conditions heat retention or lack of same, will influence total amount of supplies to be packed into the field. A system that meets specified weight, but requires 20% more water is not a weight savings nor a good idea for field supply and logistics. Any system that can integrate cooling/heating, distribute load, and reduce overall need for fluids even at an incrementally higher weight may actually reduce overall pack encumberance.

    As the various ground forces move towards a systems integration concept, body armor must now be *more* than just a layer of protection: it must be easy to wear, integrate with the system and adjust to the end user while still offering protection and other advantages. With increasing understanding of the materials sciences in cloth, ceramics and such things as nanotechnology and materials that react differently to different stress types there will always be a competition between weight, flexibility, protection capability and system integration.

    Perhaps if overall tests were designed towards systemic advantages along with protection, we might get a fairer review of the equipment involved. Perhaps the Mountain Warfare training groups would be a prime set of candidates to do year ’round on the ground testing of different system outlooks as they have to go from desert to arctic, low to high altitude and also do fun things like scaling cliffs and mountaineering in their gear. Let those who actually can put the stuff through a rigorous set of tests have a say in its critique and pluses/minuses so that the gear *starts* with end-user approval. Instead of seeing *that* as an add-on.

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  • DBurn

    I watched the 55 Minute rebuttal by General Brown of the NBC reports and I wondered why he needed 55 minutes. If the Dragon Skin suffered 13 penetrations, why not just hold up the fragments or the “holed” plates that Dragon Skin uses? Why the Dog and Pony show?

    He did hold up the armor plates to show the weakness if they are not overlapping, so it was not from lack of access. If the situations were reversed, I have no doubt that ESapi plates would be help up with the penetrations rather than the vest itself.

    That would have put a significant amount of doubt to rest. Digital X-Rays can easily be altered as can video. If you have the data back up to the penetrated armor, that’s far more difficult to penetrate- ( Of course they could always drill a hole in with a super hardened bit and then put some make up on it). I just am flummoxed why with 13 claimed penetrations they didn’t display what was left of the armor disks?

You are currently reading "Body Armor Wars: The Way Forward", entry #515 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Body Armor,Department of Defense,Military Equipment and was published May 28th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

If you're interested in what else the The Captain's Journal has to say, you might try thumbing through the archives and visiting the main index, or; perhaps you would like to learn more about TCJ.

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