No U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan because their body armor was flawed and failed to protect them, a senior Army official said Thursday as the service defended the way the lifesaving gear is tested before being used in combat.
A new audit by the Pentagon inspector general said the specially hardened ceramic plates from one body armor manufacturer — Armor Works of Chandler, Ariz. — were tested improperly and may not provide troops adequate protection.
The audit recommended that nearly 33,000 of the Armor Works plates be withdrawn from an inventory of about 2 million produced by nearly a dozen different companies.
Army Secretary Pete Geren disputed the inspector general's findings, but agreed to withdraw the Armor Works plates as a precautionary step. In a move underscoring the tension between the inspector general's office and the Army, Geren has asked a senior Pentagon official to settle the disagreement.
In a separate action, the Army in December voluntarily withdrew just over 8,000 plates because of testing gaps. Those plates were made by Armor Works and other manufacturers, including Ceradyne of Costa Mesa, Calif., and Simula, which is part of BAE Systems.
"We don't issue defective body armor," said Army Brig. Gen. Peter Fuller, the officer in charge of buying the equipment that troops carry.
Fuller spent much of Thursday on Capitol Hill where he sought to defuse the criticism generated by the audit.
Used by U.S. forces
The body armor used by most American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan consists of a vest with two large ceramic plates; one inserted in the front and one in the back to blunt enemy ammunition. The plates, known as ESAPI, protect most of the upper body from small arms fire and have proved to be lifesaving equipment.
While the plates being withdrawn represent about 2 percent of the total, the hint that even a small number of troops may be vulnerable raises the temperature in Washington. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., requested in 2006 that the inspector general review the way body armor is bought and tested. She wants the watchdog agency to dig deeper.
"This is just a mess," Slaughter said Thursday. "The Army's trying to say this is no big deal. It's a very big deal."
The Armor Works contract examined by the inspector general was awarded in August 2004 and ran through early 2008. Overall, the Army bought more than 102,000 of the protective inserts through the contract at a cost of just over $57 million, according to the audit.
Auditors focused on a step called first article testing. These tests are to confirm the product meets the Army's specifications. But the audit says the Army didn't perform or score the tests consistently. The 33,000 Armor Works plates in question were from designs that passed testing but should have failed, the audit says.
William Perciballi, president of Armor Works, said the plates have been thoroughly tested and are safe to use.
The inspector general's audit also said there must be a single testing standard to ensure that every plate offers the same level of protection.
Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., which has its own budget to buy gear for U.S. commandos, currently has a much more rigorous process than the Army. For example, the command tests for "shatter gap," a condition that can occur when a bullet hits the plate at a slower speed than it is designed to defeat. Instead of the bullet shattering when it hits, it may stay intact and go through the plate.
'Defective' tests alleged
In a twist, Armor Works last year accused the Army of conducting "defective" tests after the company's plates failed in trials for an improved series of ceramic inserts called XSAPI.
In a July 22 protest filed with the Government Accountability Office, Armor Works said the tests should have been conducted at an independent laboratory instead of at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
And in words that could come back to haunt the company, the company said the Army's "deviations from established testing procedures put troops in the field at risk, because without appropriate testing it is impossible to ensure that troops receive effective body armor."
The GAO rejected the Armor Works protest.
"There's some irony," Perciballi said. "After we'd spoken out against something that we feel is very important, which is proper testing of body armor, we get a recall of our plates."