When last we left the body armor saga two weeks ago, NBC was about to put the military's standard-issue Interceptor Body Armor up to some limited side-by-side testing with Dragon Skin body armor. Since the airing of that Dateline: NBC segment, much has happened.
Most importantly, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) will be holding a hearing today into the question of whether testing of body armor by the military has been unbiased and fair. In particular, the issue of the Army's handling of the testing of Dragon Skin and Interceptor will be examined.
Included among the witnesses are Murray Neal, president and CEO of Pinnacle Armor, the maker of Dragon Skin, and Brig. Gen. David Brown, the current head of the Army's Program Executive Officer (PEO) Soldier program.
UPDATE: Thanks to Norm DePlume in the comments, here's a link to live audio coverage of the hearing.
The hearing comes as the firestorm surrounding the Pentagon's testing of body armor has been fanned to a fury by NBC's story. Besides the HASC hearing, several senators, including Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Jim Webb, and presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and John McCain, have called for investigations.
With the airing of its Dateline segment, NBC - not surprisingly - opened a door that the Pentagon evidently wanted kept shut. The Army has gone full-tilt to try to discredit, dissuade, distract and dissemble regarding the issue, not only of Dragon Skin, but of Interceptor now, as well.
See, here's the Pentagon's problem: For a year or two now, they've made a Biiig Deal about how Dragon Skin "failed ballistics testing." They've gone to great lengths to let us know that Dragon Skin suffered several penetrations when shot at with armor-piercing rounds during Army testing. They've made sure that we Ignorant Jodies understand that only body armor that sustains ZERO PENETRATIONS!!! will be accepted for use by the U.S. military - and, By God, the Only Body Armor System That Has Sustained Zero Penetrations is, um, well, Interceptor Body Armor.
Okay, right, got it: Armor-piercing rounds have NEVER penetrated Interceptor Body Armor. Check.
Ouch. That's gonna leave a mark. (The meat of the segment is from 2:40 in the video.)
- Interceptor: 4 shots, one penetration.
- Dragon Skin: 6 shots, no penetrations, plus less back-face trauma
The Army was not happy. Time to go into full-on CONFOB mode - uh, that's militarese for "confuse and obfuscate."
Actually, I just made that up.
And a lovely dog-and-pony show it was, complete with charts, easels, laser pointers, scales, video clips, and cartoon versions of the testing process. It was like those wacky guys in the Pentagon's AV Club got to go crazy, and boy, did they!
Brown spent 55 minutes in front of a handful of reporters carefully explaining why Dragon Skin was inferior to Interceptor - except that (a) he didn't show any test results for Interceptor (although he did mention that - hey, whaddaya know! - Interceptor actually, um, had failed testing before - ya don't say), and (b) he didn't establish proof that Interceptor was superior to Dragon Skin.
Unfortunately for the Army's case, Brown's presentation lacked a few key things. Like forensic evidence. Like a chain of custody. Like more than two minutes of video (out of 24 hours of video taken of the testing. Like any audio on the video he did show. Like any direct forensic evidence of armor failure (as distinct from vest penetration, which may or may not have been made in the armored area of the vest, more than half an inch from the armor's edge).
In short, the Army's presentation was amateurish and insulting. It might have been enough - maybe - to convince a credulous class of seventh-graders (or your typical Fox News viewer, whichever is more gullible), but it was hardly a case that would have stood up to more than about two minutes of serious cross-examination by a second-year law student with a weekend's worth of knowledge of forensics, ballistics, logic and rules of evidence.
During the dog-and-pony show, Brown mentioned something about the ballistics portion of the testing costing $250,000, and how the Army was concerned about saving that money if it could.
Really? Smurf, please: Don’t tell me about how these tests cost the taxpayer $250,000 last year. Are you serious? Two hundred fifty thousand dollars??!? Whoa – at $9 billion a month, that’s the cost of about a minute and a quarter of the Iraq occupation.
Even long before the dog-and-pony show made its debut at the Pentagon - in fact, as far back as October 2006 - Murray Neal, CEO of Pinnacle Armor, the maker of Dragon Skin, already had his responses ready. I won't go into them here, but suffice to say, I'm sure he'll be giving them to the HASC today.
I am quite certain that those who are still credulous enough to believe what the Pentagon says about testing and procurement, will raise two objections to Dragon Skin's claims of superiority: The first is that they will insist that Dragon Skin failed the environmental portion of the testing. My response: Please show me the evidence: the chain of custody, the tape of the environmental testing from opening of the shipping crate with the vest in it, to the environmental test, to the firing range, and through the ballistics test, with all appropriate measurements and verification of the solution(s) that the vest was soaked in.
Mmm - don't have that, huh? Too bad. Your case falls apart.
The second objection from Pentagon toadies will be: There's no way the Interceptor plates tested by NBC could be official Army-issue ESAPI Level IV plates. My response: I have it on reliable information that, indeed, they are.
But, hey! Don't take my word for it! In fact - don't take my word for any of this! That's the whole point of the HASC hearings: Throw out everything that has happened before, disregard every prior test - including for Interceptor - and let's test 'em again! In the open, in tests run by disinterested third parties, and completely verifiable.
Who could object to that?
Only someone who is trying to hide something.
Now, before anyone goes and starts getting too excited, insuring that our troops get the best body armor available is far from guaranteed simply as a result of one hearing in a House committee. Indeed, there are plenty of vested interests serving on the HASC itself. HASC member Joe Sestak's district is home to one of the six manufacturers of ESAPI plates for the Interceptor system, just as a fer-instance.
And here's a pertinent vignette:
I visited with the Gang of Four – [Steven J.] DeTeresa, and three other staffers from the House Armed Service Committee, Harry Cartland, Jesse Tolleson and Josh Holly.The staffers “explained” to Col. Charles how Dragon Skin had “failed” Air Force testing a few weeks previously.
After a few minutes of the usual Washington phoney social chit-chat, the purpose of the visit jumped right out into the open -- the gleeful smirks on a couple of the staffers' faces had alerted me that someone expected something fun was about to happen.
Only, it hadn’t. The HASC staffers had been fed - and, evidently, had eagerly gobbled up - the Pentagon's line about Dragon Skin vs. Interceptor, and were trying to feed it to Roger Charles.
My concern is, two of those same HASC staffers, holdovers from the Duncan Hunter regime, are still with the committee, and, as far as I know, are still leading the body armor investigation.
And I'm not filled with confidence when I see the witness list:
Wednesday, June 6, 2007 – 10:00 am – 2118 Rayburn – OpenLet's see: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven - a total of eight administration witnesses (including six from the Pentagon) - not a single one of whom was an eyewitness to the May 2006 testing of Dragon Skin - against two non-Pentagon witnesses. Oh, and many of those same Pentagon guys had their own crack at the committee during a closed-door session last week - a session no one else was invited to.
The Full Committee will meet to receive testimony on Department of Defense body armor programs.
Mr. Murray Neal
Pinnacle Armor, Inc.
Honorable Philip E. Coyle, III
World Security Institute
Lieutenant General N. Ross Thompson III
Military deputy/director, Army Acquisition Corps
Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology)
Brigadier General Mark Brown
Program Executive Officer (PEO)
Mr. Roger Smith
Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Littoral and Mine Warfare
Department of the Navy
Colonel Ed Smith
Product Group Director, Combat Equipment and Support Systems
U.S. Marine Corps
Mr. Douglas D. Thomas
Executive Director for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations
U.S. Air Force
Colonel Kevin Noonan
Program Executive Office – Special Operations Forces (SOF) – Warrior
U.S. Special Operations Command
Mr. William ‘Bill’ M. Solis
Director, Defense Capabilities and Management Team
Government Accountability Office (GAO)
Dr. Jonathan Morgan
National Institute of Justice
And who was not called to testify at today's hearing? Well, evidently, no one from NBC was called to speak about their testing. And certainly Col. John D. Norwood was not called.
Col. Norwood, you may recall, was the program manager for Program Executive Officer (PEO) Soldier, in charge of testing Dragon Skin in May 2006. Very shortly after that testing - the testing whose integrity has been called into question - Col. Norwood was hired as Vice President of the Aerospace and Defense Group at Armor Holdings, the lead contractor for Interceptor Body Armor.
Somehow the House Armed Services Committee didn't see fit to ask Col. Norwood in for a little chat. Pity.
Makes me wonder how serious the committee is about really getting to the bottom of this.
At the very least, they should ask some pointed questions of their witnesses. Unfortunately, not a single governmental witness in today's hearing was an eyewitness to the May 2006 testing of Dragon Skin, and, very likely, to any military body armor testing at all. In fact, Gen. Brown only came on board at PEO Soldier (the entity responsible for body armor and all soldier equipment for the Army) the day before the May 2006 tests began, so his familiarity with any testing is second-hand at best. In the court of law, his testimony would be dismissed, inasmuch as he is capable of providing only hearsay evidence. If the committee had been serious about investigating that testing, it would've called testers Karl Masters and James Zheng, not to mention Col. Norwood, to discuss exactly what happened, and what their part in it was.
But we have to hope for something good to come from today's hearing.
Some random notes regarding the body armor issue:
- Aviation Week's Catherine MacRae Hockmuth had a great story on Dragon Skin, citing Philip Coyle, one of two witnesses in today's hearing who is not representing the Pentagon's interests. Coyle was assistant secretary of defense from 1994 to 2001, and formerly the Pentagon's director of operational test and evaluation.
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.As Coyle said to MSNBC after the Dateline segment,
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.
"It's clear to me from the tests that I observed that Dragon Skin has got some real advantages. General Brown has said that they want the best they can get for US soldiers. If that's true, they ought to be evaluating Dragon Skin side by side with Interceptor. That's going to mean side-by-side tests, where they do the same thing to both under the same conditions -- a level playing field for both sets of contractors."
- For nearly a year, the Pentagon had withheld any information about the results of the May 2006 test of Dragon Skin. The reason given was always that the Army did not want to compromise operation security (OPSEC) by giving information to The Enemy. With the premiere of its dog-and-pony show, though, evidently the Army decided public relations was more important than operation security:
Q General, you've had this data for almost a year, actually almost exactly a year. Why was it that you didn't release it until after this NBC report?- unless it's the Commander-Guy-In-Chief making a speech to the entire world in front of a map showing detailed troop deployments in Baghdad - then it's okay, I guess. But back to Gen. Brown:
GEN. BROWN: I'm very glad you asked that question. We are facing a very media-savvy enemy. They are not only media-savvy, they are Internet-savvy. We call it the "Information Domain of Warfare." Everything that we put out into the public domain, we just must assume that they get. We don't like to discuss our vulnerabilities and our counters to those vulnerabilities in the open public -
However, there's a balance to be struck. Our soldiers, and more importantly their families -- the wives, the children, the parents -- have to have confidence that our soldiers have the best equipment in the world.- But General, I don't understand? Not one second of your presentation was devoted to submitting evidence that, in fact, Interceptor is "the best equipment in the world."
- Along those same lines, I guess it's OK from an OPSEC perspective that a high-school sophomore from Bartlesville use ESAPI plates for her science-fair project, but it's not OK for NBC to use them for a side-by-side test with Dragon Skin.
Melissa Carvell, a sophomore at Bartlesville's Mid-High, won a second-place award in the materials and bioengineering category at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in mid-May in Albuquerque, N.M. . . .- rather than a trip to Leavenworth. Hmmm.
The girl's project reinforced the ceramic plates inside the body armor worn by U.S. forces with two layers of carbon fibers set at 90 degree angles to each other . . .
The honor brought her a $1,500 cash prize, an $8,000 Navy scholarship and a $1,500 prize from the Air Force.
- This is what Republican “oversight” of the Pentagon generally looks like:
There have been reports in several local papers that a Tennessee family purchased "Dragon Skin" body armor for their son who was deployed to Iraq. The manufacturer, Pinnacle Body Armor claims that the "Dragon Skin" Body Armor is superior to the Improved Outer Tactical Vest currently used by the Army. In response to these claims, I contacted the Army and was told that "Dragon Skin" had failed numerous portions of the test protocol and would leave our soldiers vulnerable.And that’s it. That was the extent of Tennessee Republican Zach Wamp’s “investigation” into the matter, after one of his constituents expressed concern about the valifdity of the military’s testing of body armor. Wamp, as you may recall, was one of Tennessee’s Republican representatives who declined an invitation to sign on to Arkansas Rep. Mike Ross’s letter urging an investigation into the body armor question.
In contrast, Democratic Representatives Jim Costa and Joe Courtney each wrote seeking an investigation, Costa to HASC Chair Ike Skelton, Courtney to the comptroller general of the GAO. (Full disclosure: Pinnacle Armor is headquartered in Costa’s Fresno, California, district.)
- Not surprisingly, the White House does not like the idea of accountability in defense contracting:
But the Bush administration has argued that expanding whistleblower protections could increase the number of frivolous complaints and compromise national security. The president has threatened to veto the House bill on the grounds that it would authorize any employee to make a classified disclosure to members of Congress.
- In the meantime, of course, business continues as usual. The Army just placed two orders for a total of 230,000 new vests; of that order, 155,000 were ordered from Specialty Defense, a wholly-owned subsidiary of our old pals at Armor Holdings.
- Kevin Drum, I am sorry to say, evidently thinks the need for better body armor - as well as improved GI benefits and decent medical care for veterans - is merely a political ploy:
Ditto for the Democratic obsession with using better body armor, higher GI pay, or the quality of military medical care as proxies for "supporting the troops." As with leaving Iraq, these are all good things to support. But they're good things on their own terms, not because anyone in uniform will be fooled into thinking that voting for them means you support the military.Yo, Kevin: It’s not an “obsession.” It’s a concern, a real concern, with real consequences – just like universal health care, restoring the environment, putting our Constitution back together, rooting out corruption, and undoing virtually every other awful thing done by the Republicans in the past six years. Please don’t condescend to me or anyone else working to effect life-saving change in any of those areas, m’kay? Thanks.
That's it for now. I don't have a link to C-SPAN (I understand the hearing will be televised), but as soon as I get one, I'll put it up.
Thanks for reading.
For more background on this sordid saga, check out these diaries.
(As always, hat tip to Dburn, whose research and passion fuel so much of these diaries. - o.h.)