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Army Taking Dragon Skin Case to Hill
Military.com | By Christian Lowe | May 22, 2007The Army plans to brief Congress about test failures of Dragon Skin body armor after recent news reports touting the vest's capabilities prompted calls from lawmakers for an official explanation.
The service's top soldier equipment buyer, Brig. Gen. Mark Brown, said he plans to meet with lawmakers and staff this week after NBC News broadcast an investigative report Sunday claiming Dragon Skin - which uses a series of interlocking ceramic disks to stop armor-piercing bullets - outperformed armor currently issued by the Army.
"Since the report, we have gotten a flurry of interest" from Capitol Hill, Brown said at a May 21 Pentagon briefing. "We're planning on going over to the Hill ... for discussions with key members."
Brown declined to specify which lawmakers contacted his office, explaining he's still working out the final details on this week's congressional visit.
The Monday briefing was the first public accounting after a year of silence on the Dragon Skin issue. Army officials are fighting back with an aggressive campaign to undercut NBC's claims, which based much of its report on ballistic tests the network conducted in Germany and on the claims of Dragon Skin manufacturer Pinnacle Armor.
The Army laid out its case with x-ray photos showing complete penetrations of the armor during a standardized test in mid-May of last year. Brown appeared at the Pentagon briefing with the actual test articles that had failed to stop armor-piercing rounds, which Army officials claim its current enhanced small arms protective insert plate can withstand.
"'Zero failures' is the correct answer," Brown said. "One failure is sudden death, and you lose the game."
The Dragon Skin vests tested by the Army in May suffered 13 penetrations in 48 shots, service officials said.
The controversy first went public last March when the Army issued a so-called "Safety of Use Message" that banned all store-bought armor, and specifically stated that Dragon Skin did not meet the service's requirement for ballistic protection.
At the urging of Capitol Hill, the Army bought 30 Dragon Skin vests in May of 2006 and put them through a standard "first article" test to see if the armor could hold up to the same ballistic conditions its current-issued ESAPIs must endure during certification.
According to Karl Masters, one of the Army's top ballistics experts, the Dragon Skin failed to stop a 7.62 x 63mm APM2 round on the second shot of the test.
"We ran this vest through the exact same test protocol that every ESAPI supplier goes through," Masters said. "Can you meet the ESAPI requirement or not? That's the question."
The Army initially held off countering Pinnacle president Murray Neal's claims that his armor was superior, despite the adverse test results, in hopes of keeping the dispute from going nuclear. But after nearly a week of NBC News reports claiming Dragon Skin is stronger, the Army decided to lay out its case.
"The intent was not to blow bridges between the Army and some very credible contractor," said Brig. Gen. Tony Cucolo, the Army's top spokesman. "It's just that with this most recent news report and its potential impact on Mr. and Mrs. America ... that's why we went with this" detailed defense.
Pinnacle's Neal told Military.com Friday the tests were flawed and that Army testers were unsure how to adequately evaluate his technology. He 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.
Army officials say they want to field a system similar to Dragon Skin, whose interlocking ceramic disks provide more protective coverage and more flexibility than currently-issued armor. But at nearly 20-pounds heavier than the Army's vest, Dragon Skin technology isn't there yet.
"We're very interested in this type of armor - in this concept," Brown explained. "It has great promise. But it is not meeting our requirements as we speak today."
Brown hopes his public case against Dragon Skin will keep Soldiers and their families from doubting the strength of their Army-issued vests.
"This is not just some number on a wall, this is personal to us," Brown said. "It's very near and dear to us which is why we take it deadly seriously."
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