Are Troops Equipped With the Best Armor?

The House Armed Services Committee held a hearing Wednesday about the merits of a new type of body armor called Dragon Skin that's said to be more flexible and more effective than the current Interceptor body armor used by troops in Iraq. But it soon discredited the new armor and the company that makes it.

It all started when NBC aired a long report on May 17 alleging that Dragon Skin was a better body armor and the Army didn't want to believe it. NBC did its own very basic test and called on expert Philip Coyle of the World Security Institute to witness the test and comment. In the report Coyle said the Dragon Skin performed better than the Interceptor.

A few days later the Army held a briefing to dispute the NBC report and released its own previous tests on Dragon Skin that showed it performed poorly. In the Army tests, Dragon Skin was penetrated 13 out of 48 times. The Army discourages its use. Yet the controversy has caused some soldiers and parents to think the Dragon Skin is better and some parents are spending $5,000 on it for their kids in Iraq.

There was so much confusion over Dragon Skin that the Armed Services Committee held a hearing with the head of the company that makes Dragon Skin and the military leaders who evaluated it.

Murray Neal, head of Pinnacle Armor, the maker of Dragon Skin, insinuated that the Army has not been fair in its testing. "When the smoke clears," he said, "you will see that Dragon Skin has the capability to save American lives." He disputed the Army's tests even though he had witnessed them.

Coyle accused the Army of being overinvested in proving the NBC report wrong. He said the advantages of Dragon Skin are that it is more flexible than the Interceptor body armor, covers more of the torso, performs better against multiple shots, reduces blunt force trauma and resists more lethal weapons.

Dragon Skin armor is made up of a series of small discs linked together to be more flexible. The Interceptor uses hard ceramic plates that don't bend. Coyle called for an evaluation of the two types of body armor in a side-by-side test administered by an independent group.

Members of the House Armed Services Committee were very skeptical of the claims about Dragon Skin. "This government owes our military the best and there should not be any second guessing," said Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C. Many members felt there should be another test. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., the ranking Republican on the committee and a presidential candidate, wanted to go to the Marine Corps lab and "get some shots off in the next week or two."

His colleague, Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., didn't want to wait that long. He pointed out there is a gun range right in the Rayburn House office building. "Let's test this out and get to the bottom of it and do what's right for the soldiers of this country," Franks said.

After it came out at the hearing that the Interceptor armor used in the NBC test was not made by an Army-approved manufacturer, and that the Dragon Skin had performed so badly in the Army's test, with one shot directly penetrating the vest, NBC's expert Phillip Coyle pulled back a bit from his enthusiastic support of Dragon Skin and admitted it's not ready for U.S. troops in battle.

Hunter challenged Coyle during the hearing, saying, "You're saying today that based on those 18 shots [in the NBC test], and the shot that you now know about that was a killing shot [in the Army test], you can't say it's ready for prime time. Is that your testimony?"

Coyle responded, "Yes, sir."

And committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., brought up an issue with Pinnacle Armor's credibility. He pointed out that in April 2006, it claimed that its body armor was tested and found to comply with certain National Institute of Justice (NIJ) standards. In fact, Skelton disclosed, the certification did not come through until December 2006.

Representing the Army at the hearing was Lt. Gen. N. Ross Thompson, deputy director of the Army Acquisition Corps. He was quite critical of the NBC story, which he felt caused the Army to publicize information about armor testing that could benefit the enemy.

"In this case, credible and factual evidence provided by the Army was cast aside for a sensational story that just was not true. It created needless worry among our men and women in uniform and their families and provided an adaptable enemy with additional information about how we equip our soldiers for the important missions they perform. It is a most unfortunate situation and, in my view, brings NBC's credibility into serious question," Thompson said.