Body Armor Wars: The Way Forward

BY Herschel Smith
16 years, 6 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

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  1. On May 29, 2007 at 7:38 am, ajacksonian said:

    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.

  2. On May 30, 2007 at 9:14 am, DBurn said:

    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?

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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.

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