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Dragon Skin Body Armor - What's Going on Here?

Conflicting and disputed claims surround the controversial use of Dragon Skin Body Armor. The Army claims that Dragon Skin experienced catastrophic failures in its tests. The makers and industry consultants claim that the Army is trying to protect other funded programs, and is having bout of "not invented here syndrome." One way or another, our troops deserve the absolute best protection when they are facing the sophisticated weaponry of al Qaeda and its allies.

Following a May 20th television report by NBC claiming that the Dragon Skin had passed independent ballistic tests, Brig. Gen. Mark Brown announced that they would meet with members of Congress this week in the wake of recent media reports that question whether soldiers are equipped with the best body armor available. The tests commissioned by NBC showed "...Level IV Dragon Skin vests outperforming Interceptor vests equipped with "ESAPI" plates in ballistic tests with various types of unnamed "armor piercing" ammunition."

General Brown's response:

- the Army has requested specific details of how the test were conducted from NBC, but so far has not received that information.

- he questions whether the "ESAPI" plates used in NBC's tests were "certified" Enhanced Small Arms Protective Inserts that the service issues to soldiers deploying to combat.

- the results of its tests performed at the National Institute of Justice-certified H.P. White labs near Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Md. that showed "four out the eight vests tested failed after suffering 13 first- or second-shot complete penetrations with 7.62mmx63mm APM2 Armor Piercing ammunition" according to Karl Masters, one of the Army's top ballistics experts. The Army's tests are summarized here.

Now, the contention of NBC, and the Dragon Skin manufacturer, Pinnacle Armor, is that the Army tests were "flawed" and that Army testers were unsure how to adequately evaluate his technology - which uses a series of small ceramic disk "scales" to cover the entire torso.

Pinnacles' president Murray Neal called Army claims that his vests failed "a bold-faced lie" and said the service is embarrassed to admit its current armor isn't the best out there.

This all relates to the March 2006 ban on store-purchased body armor. The Army approved body armor, the ESAPI (Enhanced Small Arms Protective Inserts) is a rigid ceramic plate about 12-inches high and six inches wide. Soldiers wear front and back plates and two smaller side plates, all of which are designed to stop armor piercing AK-47 rounds found in the war zone.

This controversy apparently relates to the flexibility of the Dragon Skin versus the rigid plate approach of the ESAPI. Further, according to the Army, their tests, performed under National Institute of Justice (NIJ) testing standards, also showed significant delamination of the Dragon Skin disks under Iraq-like environmental conditions (160-degree heat for six hours). The Army is also concerned about the weight of the Dragon Skin vest, 20 pounds more than the standard Army issue, ESAPI.

The NBC Program, Do U.S. soldiers have the best body armor? included interviews with Jim Magee, a retired Marine colonel who helped design Interceptor (the Army's current body armor version) a decade ago. His flat out statement was that "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."

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According to the NBC report, the CIA also tested and passed the Dragon Skin for use by its operatives in Iraq. Further, the NBC Report interviewed Nevin Rupert, a mechanical engineer and ballistics expert, was for seven years the Army's leading authority on Dragon Skin who asserted that there was a not invented here syndrome aspect to the Army's claims of catastrophic failure.

This is clearly controversial. Equipment for our troops, including their body armor has been a subject of question ever since the beginning of the War in Iraq. That there are conflicted tests and reports in the media, makes this an even larger issue.

This controversial subject has been discussed on Defense Tech, in their post, The Dragon Skin Show and also on ProfessionalSoldiers.com, Dragon Skin Testing and the Truth. After reading both posts, the conclusion has to be that not all testing is equal.

Objectively, the maintenance of a line in the Defense Appropriations budget cannot or should not compromise the safety and welfare of our troops in battle.