The war between Pinnacle Armor and the Army went nuclear this week as NBC News claimed that Pinnacle's innovative "Dragon Skin" armor is far superior to the vest the Army currently issues to soldiers.
The report shows test conducted by NBC that seem to prove the vest - as its proponents have claimed over the last several years - can take many more rifle shots than the Army's Enhanced Small Arms Protective Inserts.
But Army officials disclosed to Military.com that in a series of tests conducted by the service in May of last year, the Dragon Skin vest failed to stop bullets as well as the current Army armor. In fact, test results showed that bullets slipped through the vest as early as the second shot.
"The bottom line is that Dragon Skin by Pinnacle catastrophically failed to meet the requirement," said Brig. Gen. Mark Brown, the head of the Fort Belvoir, Va.-based Program Executive Office Soldier, in a May 17 interview.
Pinnacle's president Murray Neal told Military.com the 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.
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.
See Neal's full rebuttal Download file
The Army's ESAPI 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.
The controversy 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."
Neal argued in a release after last year's tests that Masters and another Army ballistics expert were dumbfounded by the "flexible armor system" and weren't sure where to place the shots for the test.
"Deviation from the ESAPI test protocols and procedures tool place by the selection of shot placements of APM2 rounds around the ceramics in non-rifle defeating areas," Neal said in a written statement.
But Army officials said the shots were aimed at the same areas for ESPI testing and that the first penetration would typically have been the end of the "sudden death" test.
Engineers agreed to continue with the evaluation, however, subjecting separate Dragon Skin vests to submersion in oil, salt water, extreme cold and extreme heat.
Army data shows 13 complete penetrations or unacceptable back-face deformations - where the bullet doesn't go all the way through but causes enough of a dent that it would result in serious trauma - on four failed vests.
The tests were held in mid-May at H.P. White labs, a respected ballistics testing facility in Street, Md. H.P. White is the same test lab where the Army evaluates all its armor components, preferring not to use the Army-run Aberdeen Proving Ground ranges to fend off accusations of bias.
More troubling to Army testers was the near complete delamination of the disks from the Kevlar backing within the Dragon Skin on several of the environmental tests.
After being subjected to 160-degree heat for six hours, the Dragon Skin vest failed on the first shot. X-ray photos of the vest show the disks slipped off their backing, exposing portions of the chest area without any ceramic protection.
"Certain areas of the adhesive hardened and become brittle and when that happened, they all dropped down," Brown said.
Further tests in minus-60-degree cold, immersion in oil and diesel fuel showed similar delaminations and shot failures.
Neal said the Army manipulated the x-ray photos, but admitted one vest had an adhesive "anomaly."
Perhaps the biggest Army concern is Dragon Skin's weight. An extra large vest is nearly 20 pounds heavier than the Army's current armor, though Masters admitted it did have more rifle protective coverage than issued vests.
"The Army continues to look at these types of armor," Masters admitted. "If we can ever eliminate this weight penalty, we may have an opportunity to go to gapless coverage."
The Army declined to provide details of the test failures when the controversy erupted last year, claiming operational security concerns.
But the NBC News investigation prompted officials to rethink their strategy in an effort to keep Army families from purchasing Dragon Skin vests for their loved ones in the combat zone.
"Soldiers must have confidence in their equipment when they go down range," Brown said. "They've got to know that they're wearing the best and their families have got to know that they're wearing the best."