updated 10/16/2009 6:27:39 PM ET 2009-10-16T22:27:39

The U.S. Army made critical mistakes in tests of a new body armor design, according to congressional investigators who recommend an independent review of the trials before the gear is issued to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Government Accountability Office report says the Army deviated from established testing standards and concludes that several of the designs that passed would have failed had the tests been done properly.

The Army has ordered about 240,000 of the new type of bullet-blocking plate to be used in ballistic vests, but doesn't plan to rush the armor into combat. The Army says the plates will be stored until needed to meet future demands.

In a lengthy response to the GAO report, Defense Department officials reject the call for an outside look. The officials acknowledge there were a few problems during testing of the bullet-blocking plates. But these were minor miscues, they said, that don't shake their confidence in the overall results.

Given the military's opposition to an external review by ballistics experts, the GAO says Congress should decide whether such a step is necessary.

In a letter sent Friday, Reps. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat, and Roscoe Bartlett, a Republican, urged Army Secretary John McHugh to follow the GAO's recommendations. They did not, however, say what they would do if McHugh doesn't.

Abercrombie is chairman of the House Armed Services air and land forces subcommittee; Bartlett is the panel's top Republican.

Inspector general faults Army
The GAO report is the latest study to call into question the Army's ability to oversee the production of a key piece of battlefield equipment.

In January, the Pentagon's inspector general faulted the Army for not properly overseeing a series of tests on an earlier model of the protective plates at a private ballistics laboratory.

The inspector general's audit recommended that nearly 33,000 plates be pulled from the Army's inventory of nearly 2 million because the inserts might not provide troops with adequate protection against armor-piercing bullets. The Army disputed the findings, but withdrew the plates as a precautionary step.

Stung by the inspector general's conclusions, Army officials dismissed the private laboratories they'd long relied upon for the tests and said they would do the vital job themselves at a military testing facility northeast of Washington.

That proved to be a contentious decision, however. The testing companies and manufacturers of the plates insisted the private sector could do the trials better, faster and for much less money.

With the GAO report, that argument is sure to get new traction.

In their letter to McHugh, Abercrombie and Bartlett said the move may have been "premature." They want him to review why the Army would exclude independent, private laboratories, which are certified by the National Institute of Justice, from the testing.

The testing at issue took place last year. Companies that passed were awarded contracts potentially worth $8 billion to manufacture an improved plate design.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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