Are U.S. soldiers wearing the best body armor?

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Are U.S. soldiers wearing the best body armor?

The Army has issued an industry-wide request for a new kind of body armor that can defeat even more powerful rounds than the current ceramic plate and has opened the door for the new armor construction that includes flexible systems many say are more comfortable than today's vests.

The new armor insert, dubbed "XSAPI," is intended stop armor-piercing rounds more deadly than the ones the current "enhanced small arms protective insert" can defeat, will weigh less than a pound more than today's ESAPI and could have more coverage than the rigid ceramic plates currently fielded to U.S. troops in combat.

The Army's latest solicitation - dated June 20 - marks yet another chapter in the ongoing debate over allegations that the Army has ignored armor technology that could yield more protection and comfort than its current "Interceptor" vest. In May, an NBC investigative report raised questions over whether a certain type of body armor called "Dragon Skin" was stronger than the Interceptor - which is worn by most American troops in the field.

The NBC report - and the Army counter-attack that followed - gained the attention of the top lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee, which held a hearing on the subject June 6 and demanded a new set of tests to prove once and for all whether Dragon Skin - or other armor using similar technology - was better than Interceptor.

Dragon Skin employs a flexible system of interlocking ceramic disks that the manufacturer, Fresno, Calif.-based Pinnacle Armor, says is more comfortable and can endure more rifle shots than Interceptor. The ESAPI employs a series of rigid ceramic plates inserted into the front, back and sides of the Interceptor "outer tactical vest."

After the congressional hearing, the Army revised its earlier May 27 request for new armor to test, adding the XSAPI specs and opening the offer to flexible, or "scalar," systems. The Army also extended the period for manufacturers to submit their proposals by 30 days - until the end of August - a move congressional staffers say will give Pinnacle plenty of time to submit the vests needed for testing.

"The Army seems to be accommodating Pinnacle as far as it can," a top House Armed Services Committee aide told Defense Tech.

The Army declined to comment on the new XSAPI requirement or on upcoming tests until after the service has determined a contract winner.

Pinnacle president Murray Neal faced sharp questions from skeptical Armed Services Committee members during the June 6 hearing, many of whom wondered how earlier Army tests that showed massive failures of Dragon Skin could jibe with the NBC report and Neal's own contention that the government tests were inaccurate or rigged.

Neal demanded another "independent" test of his armor with outside government observers who could verify the truthfulness of the Army evaluation.

"I would like to recommend that the Army Test Center facility located in Aberdeen, Md., be used. It is independent of all parties [and] is the only [Pentagon] oversight ballistic laboratory capable of doing such testing left in the U.S.," Neal said in a recent letter sent to Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

"My company stands ready to cooperate in any reasonable manner with your staff and designated agents when they begin the process that will result in the requested comprehensive technical assessment."

The Army acquiesced, writing in a June 22 letter to top Armed Services lawmakers in the House and Senate that both flexible and rigid ESAPI and XSAPI armor would be tested at Aberdeen and would include officials from the Operational Test and Evaluation office of the Pentagon.

In an effort Army officials have said was designed to deflect criticism that armor tests at Aberdeen could be rigged in their favor, the service has conducted most of its ballistic body armor evaluations at H.P. White labs, a civilian-run ballistic test facility in Street, Md.

"All potential body armor suppliers, including Pinnacle Armor, are welcome to compete," acting Army Secretary Pete Geren wrote lawmakers. "Pinnacle Armor has never submitted a proposal for a U.S. Army body armor solicitation. However, the U.S. Army stands ready to fairly evaluate their product and all products in response to the current solicitation."

The House committee aide added that representatives of the Government Accountability Office - the investigative arm of Congress - would also be present at the tests, satisfying lawmakers' desire for oversight.

The new armor solicitation also makes good on the Army claim that the service is always looking for new ways to protect its troops from enemy threats that continue to grow in sophistication and lethality. In late 2005, Army and Marine officials were shocked to find earlier versions of their rifle-defeating plates penetrated by a type of armor-piercing round previously unseen in Iraq.

Both the Army and Marine Corps moved quickly to strengthen their plates, fielding hundreds of thousands of ESAPIs within months.

The call for XSAPI technology raises the bar on armor protection offered to Army troops by providing a vest that can resist both 7.62mm and 5.56mm rounds with velocities much higher than the ESAPI and bullets with construction that might penetrate current plates, the Army says.

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