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Are U.S. soldiers wearing the best body armor?

The Army insists the body armor troops are now wearing — called Interceptor — is the very best in the world.  And, without question, those vests have saved lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. But an NBC investigation suggests there may be something even better out there called Dragon Skin, a flexible body armor of interconnected ceramic discs.  NBC's Lisa Myers investigates.
/ Source: NBC News Investigative Unit

Independent ballistics tests commissioned by NBC News raise new questions about whether America’s fighting men and women really do have the best body armor available.

The Army insists the body armor troops are now wearing — called Interceptor — is the very best in the world.  And, without question, those vests have saved lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But an NBC investigation suggests there may be something even better out there called Dragon Skin, a flexible body armor of interconnected ceramic discs.  

In our limited testing at a renowned ballistics lab in Germany, Dragon Skin was able to defeat more bullets than the Army’s Interceptor and did so with significantly less body trauma.

Dragon Skin repelled volley after volley of the most lethal types of ammunition, including armor-piercing rounds, armor-piercing incendiary rounds as well as a “composite” round so deadly that the U.S. Army has asked NBC News not to describe it with specificity.

Retired 4-star Gen. Wayne Downing, a decorated commander of U.S. special operations forces and an NBC News analyst, observed the tests.  He says he was impressed that Dragon Skin defeated every single round fired at it in these limited tests:

GEN. WAYNE DOWNING: What we saw today, Lisa, and again it’s a limited number of trials, Dragon Skin was significantly better.LISA MYERS: Was this a fair side-by-side test? DOWNING:  Well, it was totally fair.  And the Interceptor Body Armor did quite well.  It’s just that Dragon Skin did better.  It deserves a full, unbiased test by a neutral party.  Because I thought it was pretty dog-gone good.

Since NBC News first reported this story three days ago, prominent Democratic senators have called for an independent investigation to determine which body armor really is best.

NBC News commissioned independent testing because body armor experts, combat soldiers and military families have charged that the U.S. Army has not fairly evaluated Dragon Skin.  In fact, the Army banned it last year.

Brig. Gen. Mark Brown, who’s in charge of body armor for the Army, says the Army tested Dragon Skin last May and wasn’t impressed.  “Dragon Skin failed miserably,” he says.

According to Brown, the Army tested Dragon Skin in extreme heat and extreme cold —environments that can parallel conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

An Army briefing paper provided to NBC News says, Dragon Skin “suffered catastrophic failures at -60º Fahrenheit, 120ºF and at 160ºF” and Army officials charge that the adhesive holding the discs together failed, causing the discs to separate.

BRIG. GEN. BROWN: Thirteen of 48 shots that were taken at Dragon Skin were penetrating, full penetrating shots.LISA MYERS: So Dragon Skin failed?BROWN: Very — very badly, yes. MYERS: Even in ambient conditions?BROWN: Even in room temperature, ambient conditions.

Independent tests commissioned by NBC News
The testing NBC commissioned at a renowned ballistics lab in Germany was done at room temperature.

Phil Coyle[2], a highly respected former assistant secretary of defense who oversaw weapons testing, helped NBC ensure that the testing met Army ballistic standards in terms of the ammunition used, the number and velocity of shots fired as well as where the shots were spaced.  He’s now with the Center for Defense Information.

Murray Neal, the manufacturer of Dragon Skin, provided Dragon Skin vests right off his production line — the same model (“Level IV”), he says, he provided the Army for testing last year.

Jim Magee, who helped develop the Interceptor body armor used by the Army, provided those vests for testing.

“This is what the soldiers and Marines are wearing,” he said.

NBC News will not reveal the specific caliber of ammunition used in these tests because that might help the enemy, but we have provided that information to the Army.

First, the German engineers tested Interceptor, the Army’s body armor, against what the Army told us is the most lethal armor-piercing round in Iraq today.  Army standards require that body armor stop a single round of this type of ammunition.

Interceptor held up well, repelling three rounds — more than Army standards require.  But on the fourth round, Interceptor suffered a complete penetration.

“That would probably kill that soldier if there was a soldier wearing that vest at that time,” said Coyle.

Next, we tested Dragon Skin, with the same armor-piercing ammunition. The Army says in its testing, Dragon Skin was repeatedly penetrated when hit with one or two rounds of this type of ammunition.

Dragon Skin repelled all six armor-piercing rounds.

“Well, it’s pretty impressive. It took six armor-piercing rounds, no catastrophic failures, with the system. That’s pretty impressive,” said Gen. Downing.

And it wasn’t just that Dragon Skin stopped all the rounds — it did so with much less trauma to the body than with Interceptor.  Stopping the bullet is only half the job of body armor; a soldier can still die from the blunt force trauma of the bullet impacting the vest.

“The fact that this has less trauma means that a soldier’s going to be able to get back up and fight, get into the fight, which is what you want,” says Downing.

For the next round, testers kicked things up a notch — pitting two fresh vests of each type against an even more lethal threat: an armor-piercing incendiary (API) round.

Again, the Army’s Interceptor did well, repelling four shots in a row.  It also stopped a fifth round, but in all likelihood a soldier wearing it would have been gravely injured.  The bullet’s impact left a very deep indentation in the clay used to simulate the human body; too deep for Army standards.  A sixth shot sailed right through the Interceptor armor — a complete penetration.

Then, it was Dragon Skin’s turn.  Remember, the Army insists it can barely handle one or two rounds of the weaker ammunition used in our first test.

And once again, Dragon Skin went six for six, repelling every round of armor-piercing incendiary ammunition.

Phil Coyle — the Pentagon’s former chief weapons tester — says Dragon Skin met and exceeded Army ballistic standards in these limited tests.

“Dragon Skin appears to be more effective, not only against the Army’s own standards, but against threats that are out there in Iraq in Afghanistan,” said Coyle.  “If my son, who’s in the military, is wearing a vest, I would hope it would be this one.”

The head-to-head tests were over.  But we wondered just how much more Dragon Skin could take.  Engineers loaded three rounds of a bullet so powerful, the Army doesn’t require its body armor to defend it against it.  In fact, the Army asked NBC News not to say anything more about the bullet beyond the fact that it is “of a composite nature.”

Dragon Skin repelled all three rounds fired.  And did so with minimal trauma.

“Dragon Skin appears to have done much better than what those Army tests would have indicated,” Downing said.

Downing’s conclusion: the Army needs to take another look. “What I saw today on Dragon Skin, you know, it looks pretty good.  And that's what I will tell the Army leadership.  And I think it deserves an independent agency testing it, to see how it stacks up.  I mean we did not see today the types of failures that were described in that very controversial [Army] test report.”

We reviewed our test results with the Army, and the man in charge body armor, Brig. Gen. Mark Brown.

LISA MYERS: Would you support a full, unbiased, side-by-side test of Dragon Skin and the Army's current body armor?BRIG. GEN. MARK BROWN: Lisa, I...MYERS: someone outside the Army?BROWN: We don't do side-by-side tests.  We do tests to a standard.  We tested Dragon Skin to the standard… Dragon Skin failed miserably.

These limited tests commissioned by NBC News did not expose Dragon Skin to extreme temperatures — like those in Iraq and Afghanistan — as the Army did.  The Army says environmental testing is key.

The maker of Dragon Skin, Murray Neal, says other environmental tests indicate his armor holds up.

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the branch of the Justice Department that evaluates body armor for law enforcement use, has tested a different version of Dragon Skin — a “Level III” vest.  The NIJ certified that vest as safe for use last fall, even though an earlier Marine Corps study obtained by NBC News concluded that the same armor had failed.  The Marines found that the Level III Dragon Skin armor could stop nearly all deadly rounds, but that the expected trauma to the body would be too great.

Neal believes his system is superior to the Army’s. “We can provide more coverage, which will save more lives.  We can stop multiple repeat hits, which will save more lives.  We can stop greater threats, which will save more lives.  And we can stop substantial IED fragmentation threats, which will save more lives than the current system,” Neal says.

We were surprised to learn that one expert who agrees with him is Jim Magee, the man who originally helped design the Army’s Interceptor body armor.

We asked Magee what he thinks is the best body armor available today.

“Dragon Skin is the best out there, hands down. It’s better than the Interceptor,” he said. “It is state of the art. In some cases, it’s two steps ahead of anything I’ve ever seen.”

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 chain mail — can wrap most of a soldier’s torso, providing a greater area of maximum protection.

Magee, who says he 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.”

Some inside and outside the Army have questioned the fairness of the Army’s testing.

For seven years, Nevin Rupert had an insider's view of the Army's treatment of Dragon Skin. He is a mechanical engineer and ballistics expert who monitored Dragon Skin's development for the Army.  He claims the Army never gave Dragon Skin a fair shot.

“I believe there are some Army officials at the lower levels that deliberately tried to sabotage it.” 


“It wasn’t their program,” he says. “It threatened their program and mission funding.”

In fact, Col. John Norwood, who oversaw the Army’s May 2006 tests of Dragon Skin, has since gone to work for one of Dragon Skin's competitors, Armor Holdings. That company manufactures Interceptor body armor for the Army. The Army says it sees no conflict of interest and in a statement to NBC News, Armor Holdings said Col. Norwood’s hiring was made “in accordance with all relevant and applicable rules and regulations.”

As for Rupert, he 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.”

For John Grant, Warren Sprinkle and Moe Rimes, who have sons in or returning to Iraq, fielding the best body armor is literally a matter of life and death. 

“When the Army loses a soldier, Marines lose a Marine, that's a number.  But for us back home, that's a member of our family that we will never get back.  It's a hole in our soul that will never seal up,” says Rimes. 

Sprinkle echoes Gen. Downing’s call for a truly independent test of Dragon Skin against the Army’s body armor. 

“If there’s something out there that’s better that’s what they need to have,” he says.

The fathers have joined forces with a controversial advocacy group called Soldiers for the Truth (SFTT), which has for nearly two years been pushing Congress on the Dragon Skin issue.

SFTT is headed by long time Pentagon critic Roger Charles, a former Marine lieutenant colonel.

“Based on our research, Dragon Skin is superior, clearly,” Charles told us. “If there’s ‘super skin’ out there that’s better than Dragon Skin, and the empirical data shows it, we’ll be for it.  We’re for the best available, whatever it might be.”

Gen. Brown says the Army is open to better equipment and that its opposition to Dragon Skin is not about money.

BRIG. GEN. MARK BROWN: Force protection is the highest priority of the US Army in making sure that those young men and women survive and come home.LISA MYERS: If better body armor were found, would the Army buy it?BROWN:  Absolutely.  But we would test it through a life-fire protocol.  We would make sure that it passed all of the test criteria, before we give it to our soldiers.MYERS:  A lot offamilies we've talked to said they would like to see independent side by side tests of the army's current body armor and Dragon Skin.  Would you support that?BROWN: Again, Lisa, I would tell American families, their soldiers, and the American public that the soldiers today have the best body armor in the world, bar none.  It's been live fire tested.  It's been proven in combat. We tested Dragon Skin.  Dragon Skin failed miserably.  If Dragon Skin has made a product improvement it might be worthy of another test.”