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May 24, 2007

Dragonskin Armor: Better, Worse, Or The Same?

Lisa Myers of NBCNews sparked a controversy by comparing Dragonskin body armor versus the army's current Interceptor body armor.

First, the bias: the networks seem to have a needto prove that our troops are being inadequately protected, whether that's true or not. And Pinnacle Armor, Inc., Dragonskin's maker, has about a billion or so reasons to push its product hard.

But even given that bias, it's still important for the media to investigate our troops' arms and armor. Whether the military's procurement system is as nightmarishly FUBAR'ed as often rumored or not I don't know, but whether the MSM is trying to stick it to the Bush administration or not, I like seeing stories like this. Just so we're informed.

That said, one MSM story doesn't tell the whole tale, either.

The DoD rejects claims that Dragon Skin is overall a better system. In fact, they find the system to be overall inferior:

In response to a May 17 NBC News report challenging the Army’s use of Interceptor body armor vs. the newer “Dragon Skin” armor developed by Pinnacle Armor Inc., Brown today released information about the testing that ruled out Dragon Skin a year ago.

The tests were conducted May 16 to 19, 2006, at H.P. White labs near Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. The Pinnacle armor was subjected to the same tests Interceptor body armor goes through, first being X-rayed and analyzed and then undergoing a series of live-fire tests, Brown said. The live-fire tests included room-temperature tests, harsh environment tests, and durability and drop tests.

Of the eight Pinnacle vests tested, four of them failed the tests, with 13 rounds penetrating completely on the first or second shot, Brown said. After the first complete penetration, the vests technically failed the test, but the Army continued the testing to be fair, he said.

The Pinnacle vests also were subjected to extreme temperature variations, from minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, which would be a realistic cycle if the equipment was loaded onto a plane and flown to the Middle East, Brown said. These temperature tests caused the adhesive holding the Dragon Skin’s protective discs together to fail, and the discs gathered at the bottom of the vest, leaving gaps in protection, he said.

Brown also noted that the Dragon Skin vests are significantly heavier and thicker than the Interceptor vests. Dragon Skin vests in size extra large are 47.5 pounds and 1.7 to 1.9 inches thick; the Interceptor vests in size large, which offer an equivalent coverage area, weigh 28 pounds and are 1.3 inches thick.

“Bottom line is, it does not meet Army standards,” Brown said of the Pinnacle body armor.

Brown showed reporters videos of the tests, which were supervised by the chief executive officer of Pinnacle. He also displayed the actual vests that were tested, with markers showing the penetration sites.

The Army did not initially release the information about the tests because of possible security concerns, Brown said. “We are facing a very media-savvy enemy,” he said. “They’re not only media-savvy, they are Internet savvy. … Everything that we put out into the public domain, we pretty much assume that they get. We don’t like to discuss our vulnerabilities and our counters to the vulnerabilities in the open public.”

The Army says it's actually interested in the Pinnacle armor system, but only after they've improved the product.

That weight thing is important -- we know that in Vietnam most troops ditched their heavy flak jackets. The best armor in the world is no better than no armor at all if troops are not wearing it -- and given the heat in Iraq and general exertion of moving, marching, patrolling, and fighting, hot, heavy armor may be inferior armor even if it is, on paper, better at stopping rounds.

Unworn armor stops no rounds. True enough, armor discipline has increased dramatically since 'Nam -- you rarely see soldiers without their armor and helmets -- but who knows what would happen if they were forced to begin wearing armor approaching the weight and bulk of a flak jacket again.

Whether or not the DoD's extreme-temperature test is a fair one, or a bureaucratic artifact, I don't know. I know that the DoD sometimes insists on standards that make little sense in the field. The AR-15, a good assault rifle, was endlessly re-designed to chamber a heavier round, for example, due to the Army's desire to have a bullet that was accurate out to a certain range, just because that was the traditional range for testing guns. They tended to ignore that most firefights occurred at fairly short ranges, and at those ranges -- the real ranges of fire combat -- the AR-15 was a damn good weapon. But the insistence that it hit accurately out to, say, 2000 yards like a conventional bolt-action rifle wound up engineering it into the jam-prone pieces of shit that were the first versions of the M-16.

I don't know if the DoD is right. I started writing this post with the assumption they were, but I have to admit that Lisa Myers' report, posted after the jump, is somewhat persuasive. Certainly it doesn't appear to be the case that the Dragon Skin armor is less effective at stopping rounds, as the DoD claims.

Then again, Myers admittedly did not conduct the DoD's temperature-extremes tests. Why not? She announces she knows what that test is, but they're not bothering with it. If she truly wanted to evaluate the DoD's claims, why deliberately avoid conducting the tests the DoD was relying upon?

Further, she makes an awfully big deal out of the fact that the Interceptor armor failed after repelling four or six bullets, while the Dragon Skin repelled the sixth bullet. Whether or not it's worth an extra 17.5 pounds on an already encumbered soldier to repel a sixth direct hit or not I don't know. It seems to me that if you've been racked that many times by automatic firepower in the chest, you've probably also been hit a couple of times in the femoral artery, or the neck, or the head, making an armor's capacity to repel six or more body shots of somewhat marginal usefulness.

Anyway, here's Myers' piece.

Maybe Dragon Skin isn't ready for prime time yet, but it does seem promising.

It doesn't hurt them the brand name they've chosen almost sells the product itself.

Oh, here's the FutureWeapons guy on Dragon Skin. Of course, FutureWeapons is a warporn show; it's good and fun, but let's face it, the show doesn't make a habit of claiming the stuff it's showing is second-best or nearly as good as current technology. Everything on this show is "amazing" and/or "devastating" and/or "state-of-the-art." And again, the guy (a former SEAL, I think) doesn't bother with temperature testing, instead only focusing on Dragon Skin's apparent forte, deflections at normal temperatures.

It does a good job of showing the difference in design principles, at least. Basically plate armor (Interceptor) versus scale mail (Dragon Skin).

And then there's this -- liquid armor, especially for traditionally-unprotected parts of the body, such as the limbs and neck.

For Want Of A Nail... I find Pinnacle Armor stubborn on the point of the adhesive they're using to the affix the plates the the foam rubber skin of the armor. The DoD makes the charge that that adhesive fails when subected to extreme temperatures, causing the plates to fall off and gather at the bottom of the armor garment, leaving soldiers with quite literal chinks in their armor.

And no armor at all at multiple points on their chest.

That seems to me to be capable of being fixed. Either get some damn new adhesive, or, if no glue will survive the temperature swings the DoD tests for, just make a series of aluminum plate-sockets -- little circular receivers for the plates to slide into/snap into -- and rivet or sew those receivers into the foam undergarment. Then no plates will come loose.

Or use cloth to hold the plates in place. Something, anything unaffected by temperatures.

True, that adds a little weight and bulk to the armor. But thin aluminum (it's just there to hold the plates in place, not provide protection) is very light. We're talking about adding the weight of a dozen empty Coke cans to an already heavy piece of armor.

Again, this seems like a criticism of the armor that ought to be taken seriously, and one standing between Pinnacle Armor and about a billion dollars or so in military contracts. So why are they so reluctant to fix this problem? Even if they truly believe it's not a problem, fix it anyway, so that the DoD can't use it against them.

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posted by Ace at 10:56 AM

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