For troops in the line of fire, body armor can spell the difference between life and death.
Brig. Gen. Mark Brown, who oversees body armor for the Army, told NBC, “The body armor that we issue to our soldiers today is the best in the world. Bar none. It’s proven by live-fire testing, and it’s proven in combat.”
But is it really the best?
An NBC News investigation — including independent ballistics tests — suggests there may be something better called Dragon Skin. Military families and soldiers have tried to buy Dragon Skin believing it offers better protection. But the Army banned the armor last year even before formally testing it.
The Army’s current body armor is called Interceptor. NBC News tracked down the man who helped design Interceptor a decade ago, Jim Magee, a retired Marine colonel:
LISA MYERS: What is the best body armor available today in your view?
JIM MAGEE: Dragon Skin is the best out there, hands down. It's better than the Interceptor. It is state of the art. In some cases, it’s two steps ahead of anything I’ve ever seen.
MYERS: You developed the body armor that the Army is using today.
MAGEE: That's correct.
MYERS: And you say Dragon Skin is better?
MAGEE: Yes. And I think anybody in my industry would say the same thing were they to be perfectly honest about it.
Why? He says more stopping power and more coverage.
According to Magee, the Army’s Interceptor uses four rigid plates to stop the most lethal bullets, leaving some vital organs unprotected. Dragon Skin — with discs that interconnect like Medieval chainmail — can wrap most of a soldier’s torso, providing a greater area of maximum protection.
Magee, who has no financial stake whatsoever in Dragon Skin, told us, “If you would ask me today, ‘Jim we’re sending you to Iraq tomorrow. What would you wear?’ I would buy Dragon Skin and I would wear it.”
He’s not alone. NBC News has learned that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) bought Dragon Skin for elite operatives in Iraq, they say, after it passed CIA testing.
But Brown says the Army conducted its own tests of Dragon Skin last year.
BRIG. GEN. BROWN: Thirteen of 48 shots that were taken at Dragon Skin were penetrating, full penetrating shots.
MYERS: So that’s a catastrophic failure.
MYERS: So Dragon Skin failed?
BROWN: Dragon Skin failed miserably.
Brown suggested those tests led the Army to issue a “Safety of Use Message,” warning soldiers of “death or serious injury.”
There’s just one problem: the Army banned Dragon Skin in March, almost two months before that testing began in May.
MYERS: General, the Army banned Dragon Skin before the Army even tested it.
BROWN: Lisa, I’m — I’m not aware of that… I don’t know that it had not been tested at that time. I wasn’t here.
Nevin Rupert, a mechanical engineer and ballistics expert, was for seven years the Army’s leading authority on Dragon Skin. Now a whistleblower, he says the Army’s timing wasn’t coincidental.
RUPERT: I believe there are some Army officials at the lower levels that deliberately tried to sabotage it.
MYERS: What possible motive would Army officials have for blocking a technology that could save lives?
RUPERT: Their loyalty is to their organization and maintaining funds.
He says that because Dragon Skin was not developed by the Army, some officials considered it a threat to funding of Interceptor and other Army programs.
RUPERT: It wasn’t their program. It threatened their program and mission funding.
Rupert also says he was ordered not to attend the tests of Dragon Skin.
MYERS: You spent seven years evaluating Dragon Skin. And the Army goes to test it. And you're told not to attend?
MYERS: They didn't want you there?
RUPERT: They didn't want a lot of people there.
Rupert was recently fired by the Army, he says, for supporting Dragon Skin. When questioned about Rupert by NBC News, the Army said in a statement:
“Mr. Nevin Rupert was employed by the Army Research Laboratory for more than 33 years as a mechanical engineer in the Weapons & Materials Research Directorate, located at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Md. Mr. Nevin left federal service on February 24, 2007. He has a June 2007 appeal before the Merit System Protection Board.”
NBC News also has learned that, well after the Army ban, select soldiers assigned to protect generals and VIPs in Iraq and Afghanistan wore Dragon Skin.
An active duty soldier, who asked us to conceal his identity, told NBC he wore Dragon Skin on certain missions, with the full knowledge of his commanders.
“I wore it and I saw other people wearing it… It conforms to your body, it gives you more mobility,” he said.
LISA MYERS: Does the ban on Dragon Skin apply equally to everyone in the Army?
BRIG. GEN. MARK BROWN: Lisa, yes it does.
However, sources and documents obtained by NBC News reveal that a top general’s security detail in Iraq bought and wore Dragon Skin.
MYERS: If Dragon Skin is good enough for a 3-star general, shouldn’t it be good enough for other soldiers?
BROWN: Lisa, even 3-star generals make mistakes.
A Pentagon spokesman says that Gen. Peter Chiarelli, once the top ground commander in Iraq, “had no knowledge that Dragon Skin was prohibited” and “never wore Dragon Skin,” though it’s possible his staff ordered it for him. The spokesman went on to say that Chiarelli acknowledges that his bodyguards ordered and received concealed body armor, but that Chiarelli “didn't know the armor was Dragon Skin.”
Given the controversy over body armor, NBC News commissioned an independent, side-by-side test of Dragon Skin and the Army’s Interceptor vest. In that testing, Dragon Skin outperformed the Army’s body armor in stopping the most lethal threats. Retired four-star Army Gen. Wayne Downing, now an NBC news analyst, observed the tests.
“What we saw today, Lisa, and again it’s a limited number of trials, Dragon Skin was significantly better,” he said.
These independent, limited tests raise serious questions about the Army’s claim that Dragon Skin doesn’t work. NBC News will report on the specific results of that testing on Dateline NBC Sunday. Critics tell NBC they’d like to see the Army re-test and re-evaluate Dragon Skin.
Editor's note: NBC's Brian Williams reported the following update on "NBC Nighty News" Fri., May 18:
We have a follow up on our report last night, the results of an NBC News investigation that questioned whether the body armor issued to every soldier in the US Army is really the best available. It focused on a a kind of armor called Dragon Skin, which had been banned by the Army, but, as we reported, was still being used by some of the elite forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, three prominent US senators, all Democrats, called for an investigation. The government accountability office is expected to examine this issue. We also heard today from the Pentagon, including a call from General Peter Chiarelli, who reiterated what we reported last night, that he never wore Dragon Skin but that some members of his staff did wear a lighter version of the banned armor on certain limited occasions, despite the Army ban. General Chiarelli said his biggest concern was that our story may have left the impression that he and his staff were issued better equipment somehow and therefore were more secure than other soldiers throughout the US Army. That, he said, is not the case.