Philip Coyle, the Pentagon's former chief tester and a consultant in the NBC News investigation into Dragon Skin body armor, says he's not convinced by the Army's defense of its Interceptor system over the past few days. Coyle, a senior adviser at the Center for Defense Information, observed NBC News' side-by-side tests of Dragon Skin and Interceptor at a ballistics laboratory in Germany. He observed the tests pro bono after a request from NBC News.
Coyle said in a telephone interview with Ares last night that the Army's PowerPoint slide was "misleading" in its comparison of body coverage between the Army's Interceptor and Dragon Skin manufactured by Pinnacle Armor. The Army banned soldiers from buying Dragon Skin last year. Coyle said he had his own private briefing of the Dragon Skin testing by one of Brig. Gen. Mark Brown's senior staff members and was told the Inteceptor's body coverage was compared to Dragon Skin without the plates that actually provide the protection. Brown heads the Army office charged with selecting body armor.
"What’s the point of that?" Coyle said. "A fair comparison would measure how much coverage each of the vests gave you. The disadvantage of the Army’s system is there are gaps in the front and back and sides where bullets can get through. Pinnacle's armor covers whole torso."
The Army is launching a full defense of its Interceptor system, and has released a PowerPoint slide on its own testing of Dragon Skin, which the Army asserts failed 13 out of 48 shots last year. "Force protection is the No. 1 priority of the U.S. Army," said Brig. Gen. Mark Brown during an Army press briefing. "Our soldiers and marines today have the best body armor in the world, bar none. It is live fire tested and it is proven in combat."
Coyle said he has asked for a copy of the Army's actual test results rather than just the PowerPoint slide the Army has released and was told the request, which he had to submit in writing, is being processed up the chain of command. "There are PowerPoint briefings and there are PowerPoint briefings," Coyle said. He was also not convinced by the Army's weight comparisons between the two vests. The Army says the Dragon Skin vest is 19.5 pounds heavier than the Interceptor, an assertion Pinnacle Armor disputes and Coyle said wasn't apparent during the NBC News tests in Germany.
"I know that’s what the Army says," said Coyle. "And they had quite a convincing display of that [during the press conference]."
I've been trying to give the Army the benefit of the doubt on its Dragon Skin tests, but the skepticism of someone as qualified and respected as Coyle and the refusal of the Army to reconsider side-by-side testing makes me wonder. I've been bothered by Brig. Gen. Brown's response to NBC News reporter Lisa Myers question about side-by-side testing since Sunday night. When asked whether the Army would do side-by-side testing, Brown just said that the Army doesn't do side-by-side testing but "tests to a standard." Well fine, but NBC News tested both vests to the Army's standard and Inteceptor came up short. The Army's tests of Dragon Skin were a full year ago. Maybe it's improved? It sure looked that way in the NBC News tests.
In any case, no one is saying Interceptor doesn't provide good protection. Both Coyle and retired Army Gen. Wayne Downing, another observer, said the Interceptor performed well during the NBC News tests. It's just that Dragon Skin was better, particularly in reducing blunt force trauma, which can kill even if a bullet doesn't actually penetrate the vest.
"The Pinnacle Armor has some advantages that I saw during the tests in Germany that the Army ought to be interested in," said Coyle. He cited five advantages of Dragon Skin over Interceptor:
1. It's flexibility better conforms to the contours of the human body, which is particularly important for female soldiers.
2. It covers more of the torso.
3. Dragon Skin is better with multiple shots.
4. Dragon Skin reduces blunt force trauma. Coyle says the depth of cavities caused in the test clay by shots fired at Dragon Skin were half as deep as the cavities caused in the clay during the Interceptor test. (Coyle says both vests were tested in the same way to Army standards against curved clay backings despite assertions to the contrary making their way through the blogosphere.)
5. Dragon Skin performed better against some of the more deadly ammunition being used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The report has the attention of Congress.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) sent a letter yesterday to Defense Secretary Robert Gates requesting that the Pentagon's director of operational test and evaluation -- Coyle's old job -- conduct a technical assessment of body armor systems currently available on the domestic market. The senators question the "fairness and reliability" of the Army's tests. Separately, Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and James Webb (D-VA) sent their own letter to the General Accountability Office requesting an assessment of the Interceptor against Dragon Skin and any other commercially available body armor.
--Catherine MacRae Hockmuth