Original Post – September 26, 2007 by Crooked Timber:
Body Armor Procurement – Who is shielding whom?
The US Army continues to insist that it provides the best body armor available to our soldiers. But upon closer review many critics state that the way our military buys equipment, the procurement system, may actually endanger our troops in combat and could tragically be costing lives. Specifically, Interceptor– the body armor currently issued to U.S. troops– is favored over a competitor called Dragon Skin, but Dragon Skin, with its scale-like design of overlapping ceramic disks repels bullets better, is more flexible, and covers more of the body according to its manufacturer and many experts. But the Army and Marines have banned Dragon Skin because its top procurement officers claim it failed the Army’s tests and doesn’t meet their standards.
Critics have not been shy in voicing their indignation over procurement practices they say put our soldiers lives at risk, practices which seem to be influenced by huge profits and personal gain. And these are not your ordinary doves, pacifists, or military haters who are complaining—many critics are former military insiders who are knowledgeable about the inner workings of the system and they are outraged by what they see.
For example former Marine Colonel Jim Magee, who went into the body armor industry after retiring, says that “in order to reduce cost in something that’s made of fabrics, you need to reduce the amount of fabric that’s in the item. And in the case of body armor, that’s Kevlar, which is why they (Interceptor) shrank at the shoulders to this almost bra-strap-like thing they have now, there’s a big scallop in the back of the body armor that makes no sense at all– I mean, it exposes your kidneys, it took out 200 inches, and 200 inches translates to cost.” Magee helped develop the Army’s Interceptor body armor, but has become a fan of its banned rival, Dragon Skin, a technology he says is two generations ahead of anything he’s ever seen.
NBC News also questioned the Army’s tests, running its own independent testing. In those tests Dragon Skin outperformed the Army’s body armor in stopping the most lethal threats. The late four-star Army General Wayne Downing, an NBC News analyst, observed the tests and reported on TV that based on what he saw Dragon Skin was significantly better. In response, the Army rejected NBC’s findings and released data they said proved Dragon Skin had failed Army testing “catastrophically.” According to the top procurement officer, Brig. General Mark Brown, the Army tested eight vests, four failed, 13 penetrating shots out of 48. Interceptor he said passed their live-fire tests with zero failures.
But Engineer Nevin Rupert, who was the reigning Army expert on Dragon Skin for one of the military’s main test labs, reported after Brown’s public statements that he had been barred from the Army test at which Dragon Skin was penetrated “catastrophically.” After objecting to his exclusion, Rupert was fired for insubordination! Why fired? Well, he supported and still prefers Dragon Skin and insists that Army officials were trying to sabotage it to protect Interceptor contractors. And who was championing Interceptor? A then-colonel named John Norwood. Mr. Norwood it seems wrote a request to the procurement chief in advance of the tests requesting that Rupert be removed from the flexible body armor program. And– hold onto your hat– in the time since, Norwood retired and went to work for Interceptor contractor Armor Holdings, and has secured $350 million in body armor contracts in the last year.
When pressed by NBC over whether he was aware that Norwood, who oversaw the testing of Dragon Skin, now works for one of the companies making Interceptor vests, General Brown said that he was and that he saw no conflict of interest at all. He said Norwood “followed all the laws and regulations and ethical rules about post-service employment.”
Winslow Wheeler, from the Center for Defense Information weighed in by adding that “the law is full of loopholes, and they’re not even enforcing what tatters are left of the old revolving-door legislation.” According to him the practice of someone leaving the military for a job with a company to which he awarded contracts is standard behavior. “It’s the way the system works. It’s the way the system keeps itself going.”
It gets worse; it seems that the main Interceptor contractor over the years has been Point Blank. Yet, in 2005, the Marine Times reported that their vests flunked tests for years and had allowed penetrations by the very bullets they were designed to repel. Disturbingly, Marine Colonel Gabe Patricio sent thousands of Point Blank vests to the front, despite complaints from the civilian tester that they would jeopardize lives. When questioned on why, he said they’d passed his own test at a private lab and that the vests were badly needed at the front. Yet Point Blank already had a bad reputation; they had already been sued by several police departments for selling them defective vests. But Colonel Patricio saw fit to send them to our combat troops anyway. Thankfully the vests Patricio passed through were recalled from Iraq, 5,000 of them.
It doesn’t end there; Point Blank’s parent company, DHB, has been subjected to an on-going Defense Department and a criminal investigation. Colonel Patricio’s waver signing partner, DHB’s former president, is currently under criminal indictment for accounting fraud. Three of Patricio’s Marine colleagues subsequently went to work for DHB. And just to add insult to injury, Patricio himself retired and set up a company to consult with the military on the testing of, you guessed it, body armor. Yet, he insists all is above boards:
“Well, we all have a right to make a living. There’s a certain workforce required in the area to perform these services and, clearly, there are people that come off of uniform…that are necessary to help the government continue to do its business for the private sector. And so it seems like a natural transition.
But Colonel Magee scoffed at such nonsense; he points out that the SEC filed an investigation against them. The Marines complained about the quality of the vests, but somehow Point Blank kept getting the orders.
Alas, Point Blank continues to obtain the contracts to make Interceptor body armor vests for our troops, scoring another $50 million this past summer. Meanwhile, rival Dragon Skin continues to be banned by the Armed forces even though there are many who champion its cause. It seems to me that with something as fundamentally important as preserving even one extra life we should exhaust every possible test, in full public view using objective testers, and choose the best product– the Army clearly disagrees with this premise. So now, many families from across the country aren’t waiting for the military to do the right thing, they are taking it upon themselves to purchase Dragon Skin for their fighting sons and daughters– its just another example of the great, honorable, sacrifice that a small portion of our nation’s families are making to fight this war. While most Americans continue to live large, even going so far as to accept tax cuts with a clear conscience, these parents can’t even trust our military not to gamble with their kids lives– so they have to try to protect their loved-ones themselves. These families need help– without public outcry this shameful activity will continue to be carried out by unscrupulous military contractors and procurement officers, all for money and self-promotion. madness!
Cite: The News Hour on PBS:Listen to the “News Hour” report in full: armor28.mp3
- Army Recruits Prisoners to Make Body Armor (wired.com)