Body Armor Goes Political

BY Herschel Smith
8 years, 11 months ago


Discussions on body armor for Soldiers and Marines can be highly technical, and most of them have been, right up until recently.  Senators are now winning political points by talking about body armor that will never be deployed because it is too heavy to wear on the battlefield; the Government Accountability Office is performing investigations that fail to address government accountability; the Army refuses even to consider assistance to its testing program by an independent engineering consultant; and all the while Marines are still being denied the equipment that they need.  Body armor has gone political.

Introduction & Background

In Body Armor Wars: The Way Forward, we gave a primer on the features and characteristics of the currently deployed body armor (the Interceptor Body Armor and the Modular Tactical Vest, or Spartan 2 Assault Vest), and expanded the investigation into the claims and counterclaims of Pinnacle, and the Army, respectively, concerning the Dragon Skin body armor.  Finally, we outlined a way forward for all concerned parties, this way being the best solution for the Soldier and Marine irrespective of how other parties feel about it.  The recommendations included but were not limited to the development of analytical models of the body armor types, a re-examination of the testing protocol, a review of the test data and more testing as deemed appropriate, and real world input from Soldiers and Marines concerning ‘wearability’ and heavy battlefield weight.  This was to be led by an independent engineering consultant to the Department of Defense.

There were political machinations at work prior to our article on body armor wars, but these wars are becoming increasingly political and less oriented towards technical substance and reviewer independence.  Shrill voices who have never put on body armor are now weighing in, clearly attempting to gain political points.

Survey of the Debate

Below we catalog recent articles which bear on the issue of body armor and the Dragon Skin versus the IBA (Interceptor Body Armor) / MTV (Modular Tactical Vest, or Spartan 2).

On April 26, 2007, the Government Accountability Office published their preliminary findings in Defense Logistics: Army and Marine Corps’s Individual Body Armor System Issues, as GAO-07-662R.  Other than standardization of test protocol for soft ballistic panels, the GAO reported a substantial amount of detail to Congress concerning their findings, none of which were worthy of mention as problems.  The study and report focused on meeting theater requirements and body armor availability, testing protocol, post-deployment inspections and information sharing between the Army and Marine Corps.  A comparison of the IBA/MTV with the Dragon Skin (or an assessment of claims made by Pinnacle) was not within the scope of the study.

On May 2, 2007, OpFor published the summary of the GAO’s investigation into the body armor testing, and reported “sorry Pinnacle, no government conspiracy.”  OpFor followed up this article with two more articles: May 21, 2007 and May 22, 2007, both of which were extremely critical of the Dragon Skin and the claims by Pinnacle.

On May 18, 2007, Senators Clinton and Webb issued a press release in which they “called on Comptroller General of the United States David M. Walker to initiate a Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation to reassess the body armor systems currently being issued by all the military services and the Special Operations Command for effectiveness and reliability against the threats facing U.S. troops in combat.”  Note that this press release recommends a different GAO investigation, one that focuses on the currently deployed systems versus the Dragon Skin.

On May 20, 2007, two days after Senators Clinton and Webb issued their press release, NBC published an article on the Dragon Skin body armor entitled Are U.S. Soldiers Wearing the Best Body Armor?  In addition to conducting their own tests after which they call into question the Army test results, they NBC slips in their summary statement up front, saying that “the Army’s Interceptor uses four rigid plates to stop the most lethal bullets, leaving some vital organs unprotected. Dragon Skin — with discs that interconnect like Medieval chainmail — can wrap most of a soldier’s torso, providing a greater area of maximum protection.”

Also on May 20, 2007, Jeff Huber of Pen and Sword published an article that was highly critical of the Army’s handling of the body armor situation.  The article at Pen and Sword presupposes the superiority of the Dragon Skin to the IBA/MTV.

On May 28, 2007, The Captain’s Journal published Body Armor Wars: The Way Forward.  In this article we sided with OpFor concerning battlefield weight, although we decidedly favored completely independent testing and analysis by a mechanical and forensic engineering firm, as well as review of all DoD testing protocols of body armor.  We provided a list of ten recommendations for such a project.  On the same day, Blackfive published a list of useful links to the body armor controversy, and concurred with our opinion regarding independent testing and analysis.

On June 5, 2007, DefenseTech published an article entitled The Dragon Skin Circus Begins.  Defense Tech received an advance copy of testimony before congress and supplied some technical analysis and criticism, and using an extensive history of coverage of this body armor issue, raised a number of technical issues associated with both the Dragon Skin testing and the testimony before Congress.

On June 6, the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing on the controversy, and ranking member Duncan Hunter, whose son is a Marine who has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, issued a statement both warning on the one hand of the necessity to test in high temperature conditions, and on the other of the need for retesting of the body armor systems.  Despite the requests, Army officials declined to retest the body armor systems under any other protocol than a new contract.  On June 7, 2007, DefenseTech published a post-mortem on the Dragon Skin Congressional hearing.

On June 7, 2007, Daily Kos weighed in with the most vitriolic and shrill article yet on body armor.  The article sees an evil administration at every turn, refusing to consider the safety of the troops.  This insightful comment sits at the end of the responses to the article for those readers patient enough to endure the beating: “Dragon Skin’s attempt to disguise lobbying as concern for the troops isn’t terribly creative.”

On June 11, Air Force contracting officials sought to prohibit Pinnacle Armor from signing new contracts with the U.S. Government, alleging false claims by Pinnacle to have met ballistic standards that in fact they did not.  On June 14, the Navy issued the same order that the Marines did, banning personally purchased body armor.

Even more recently, American Legion Post 735, which spent $6000 for Spartan 2 Vests (commercial equivalent to the Modular Tactical Vest) for Marines soon to be deployed to the Anbar province, have had their equipment retired and denied use by Marines due to Marine administrative order MARADMIN 262/07 that we discussed in Gear and Equipment Problems for the Marines.  Be careful not to confuse this with the debate about Dragon Skin body armor, since New York Congressman Brian Higgins, albeit with the best of intentions, has made this mistake and issued a press release asking for the same independent probe that Senators Clinton and Webb have requested.

Assessment & Evaluation

The chorus of voices discussing body armor has become so loud that clarity and precision are languishing … and body armor has gone political.  Senator Clinton, while standing to gain political points, is at least ignorant of body armor issues.  Senator Webb is not ignorant of body armor issues, and knows full well that the U.S. cannot put Soldiers and Marines in the Dragon Skin’s 48 lbs. of weight (compared to 32 for the Interceptor or MTV).  It must be remembered that the warrior carries not only his body armor, but a hydration system, weapon, ammunition, sometimes communication gear, and often other supplies.  The heavy battlefield weight has led to ankle and knee injuries that incapacitate fighters on the battlefield, thus endangering their lives.  There is currently a push by the Army and Marines to decrease battlefield weight, not increase it.  “Anecdotal evidence is streaming back from the battlefield about Marines breaking their ankles while jumping off of trucks because of the weight they are carrying … Maj. Gen. William D. Catto, commanding officer, Marine Corps Systems Command, during the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space Exhibition April 6, 2006, said that the “current body armor system is ‘too heavy’.  Catto went on to call for industry “pinheads? to help develop lighter armor because the “lightest guy in the platoon going across the line of departure is wearing 80 pounds of gear.?

Senator Webb knows this, and he is merely trying to gain political points.  In fact, the question should be considered how Pinnacle’s body armor system even justified testing by the Army given its heavy weight.  It cannot be deployed as is, and its weight must be reduced by a fraction of at least 32/48 = 0.667, or 2/3, before it can be considered equivalent to the currently deployed body armor, regardless of coverage area.  This is a nontrivial amount of weight.

Yet there are troubling issues.  Questions have arisen concerning the rigid restraint of the Dragon Skin during testing, the angle of incidence of the projectile, and other issues of testing protocol and interpretation of results.  This matters for one simple reason: proof of principle.  If flexible, full coverage body armor is to be in the future of the Army and Marines, these questions must be answered.  The Army is being profoundly unhelpful by refusing any independent consultative support for their testing and analysis engineering.

The Marines have their own problems.  The Modular Tactical Vest, which represents a substantial improvement over the IBA, was supposed to be deployed in February of this year, and all Marines deployed to Iraq were supposed to have this armor carrier (with the same ESAPI plates and soft armor panels – see Body Armor Wars: The Way Forward, for an explanation of improved features of the new carrier).  Since it has been delayed in manufacture and deployment, it has become common practice for Marines at Camp LeJeune to drive down the road a mile or two to Tactical Applications Group and spend the money to purchase their own vest.  This is what American Legion Post 735 purchased for their adopted Marines, only to be denied its use by a field grade officer who is not being innovative and taking advantage of the fact that the Spartan 2 is the exact duplicate in form, fit and function as the Modular Tactical Vest.

Finally, the Government Accountability Office sent too many investigators to Quantico to talk to Marine Corps officers, and not enough to Camp LeJeune to talk to Lance Corporals who could have told them that talk of the MTV was a smoke screen and a ruse since the MTV has not yet been issued.  To be named the GAO, this office gives little confidence that there is much “accountability,” whether in the GAO or elsewhere.

Conclusions & Recommendations

Given the lack of confidence inspired by the federal government, independent consultative support is necessary to restore the public confidence in the system.  Support, that is, who doesn’t stand gain from whatever conclusions that are reached.  This is necessary for not only proof of principle for future body armor designs, but for currently deployed armor we well.

The politicians who stand to gain by demanding new GAO investigations of the Dragon Skin should stand down and align themselves with the House Armed Services Committee, because when politics rears its ugly head, science rarely wins, and government accountability is a rare commodity.

We are advocating the same thing that Representative Duncan Hunter is: independent testing and consultative support — yet with a full view to the comprehensive requirements under which the body armor system must perform, including temperature and battlefield weight.

**** UPDATE ****

This article was published on June 18, 2007.  On June 20, 2007, the Strategy Page weighed in on body armor weight:

June 20, 2007: While politicians and pundits make a lot of noise about getting the troops better body armor, the troops are asking for less, or at least lighter and less bulky, armor. Anyone who has been in combat will tell you that survival depends, first of all,  on speed and mobility. Body armor helps when you do get hit, but the latest body armor often slows troops down and makes them vulnerable to hits in unarmored areas (the face, and limbs). Troops traveling in vehicles find the body armor a major obstacle to getting out quickly. This can be a matter of life and death. Another problem is fatigue and heat. The heavy armor is cumbersome, and wearing it in action wears you out more quickly.

SOCOM troops have a lot of discretion, and sometimes prefer to go into action without their body armor. But regular soldiers and marines must wear the body armor at all times, and they are not happy with the no-win situation they are often put in because of this requirement. The politicians are really paying attention, and the troops are not happy with the results. No one, except the troops who wear the stuff, appear to realize how critical weight and bulk is.

One (sort of) bright spot is that the enemy often obtains body armor, either Russian stuff, or police grade protective vests. This does give them some protection, but it also slows them down and wears them down more quickly. In some situations, when Taliban gunmen are being pursued, they have been seen abandoning their body armor, in order to increase their chances of getting away.

Of course, the solution is not to make use of discretion to jettison body armor.  It is for the designers of the ceramic ESAPI plates to come up with something lighter.

You are currently reading "Body Armor Goes Political", entry #522 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Body Armor,Department of Defense,Military Equipment,Politics and was published June 18th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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