The Army has opted to delay testing of new body armor designs that can stop powerful armor piercing bullets and vests that contain flexible plating much like the controversial Dragon Skin armor.
Citing industry requests, the Army's top gear buyer told Military.com the test firing on so-called "XSAPI" and "FSAPI" armor would be held off until March 2008.
"Some body armor manufacturers told us they needed a little more time to get long-lead materials and to test new designs before they could submit them to us," said Brig. Gen. Mark Brown, head of the Fort Belvoir, Va.-based Program Executive Office Soldier.
Brown said the new armor designs would likely be tested at Aberdeen Test Center, Md., beginning in March and finished up by June. Testing on the new designs was previously set to begin last fall.
Also Read: Army Seeks Body Armor for New Threat.
The Army was pressured into launching a new solicitation for body armor designs after lawmakers held hearings on Capitol Hill to delve into the debate surrounding Dragon Skin, which is made by Fresno, Calif.-based Pinnacle Armor. An NBC News investigative report in May claimed that the flexible Dragon Skin armor was far more protective than the current Interceptor system, which uses two rigid ceramic plates to stop armor-piercing bullets.
The Army came out swinging before the NBC report aired, claiming Dragon Skin had catastrophically failed several make-or-break tests it had conducted -- the same kinds of tests used to certify all body armor systems submitted to the Army for fielding.
Also Read: Army Refutes Dragon Skin Claims.
But that didn't stop some Dragon Skin advocates from claiming the fix was in, prompting a House Armed Services Committee hearing June 6 that pitted Pinnacle chief Murray Neal against the anti-Dragon Skin Army brass.
Nevertheless, the committee's ranking member, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), called for a side-by-side test of Dragon Skin and the Interceptor run by government engineers and overseen by both congressional and Pentagon auditors. That led to the Army's June 20 request to industry for both flexible armor designs like Dragon Skin -- which incorporates a series of interlocking ceramic disks rather than a single rigid plate -- and for a so-called "XSAPI" plate which could stop armor piercing rounds the current ESAPI can't.
Brown said part of the delay in testing comes from industry's inability to create an XSAPI plate that comes in under the weight limit of about seven pounds for a size "large" plate, about a pound more than the current ESAPI.
"One thing troops in the field have told us is they don't want any more weight with a new armor system," Brown said, adding that preliminary submissions for XSAPI have been too heavy.
For his part, Pinnacle's Neal says he plans to submit Dragon Skin samples for the upcoming test and is glad the Army is finally taking his technology seriously.
"The extensions, as we have been told by several Army personnel, are primarily for the current manufacturers to fix the plates that have been run through preliminary testing and that are not passing with enough percentage to guarantee passing the [final] testing," Neal said in a email to Military.com, adding he's only too eager to pit his flexible -- otherwise known as "scalar" -- system up against any comers.
Another top body armor designer who has a scalar system of his own said he doubts many companies other than Pinnacle will submit a flexible vest. Allan Bain, president of Evolution Armor, said the Army is right to delay the process to make sure any new submissions have realistic chance of success, though his company has declined to participate.
"The Army is looking for a state of the art system, and there is a lot of pressure by Congress to make every effort on a major purchase like this to ensure that the armor purchased is truly the best performed by unbiased testers and evaluators," Bain said via email. "So they are not rushing it."