Body Armor Reports by National Research Council

8 May 2010

On November 20, 2009, Secretary John McHugh formally announced that the National Research Council would perform an independent evaluation of the US Army’s body armor test procedures.  The announcement by Secretary McHugh followed a month of Pentagon-spin by military wordsmiths intent on undermining the devastating findings of the General Accountability Office (“GAO”) in their Report to Congressional Requesters, entitled “Independent Expert Assessment of Army Body Armor Test Results and Procedures Needed Before Fielding.

Thanks to the efforts of Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) and others, Congressional leaders were not side-tracked and continued to insist that the Department of Defense address the issues raised in the GAO report.    “In his October 22 letter to Secretary Gates, Senator Webb noted a disturbing lack of consensus between the GAO and the Department of Defense Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) in their evaluations of Army body armor testing.  ‘Continued controversy over the reliability of new body armor can undermine public confidence,’ Senator Webb wrote. ‘Ultimately, those who rely on this armor for protection may also question its performance.’”   Senator Webb is too kind, I had suggested that a general recall of body armor might be in order if this had been an automobile with defective brakes.  Where is the outrage?

Senior Investigative Reporter and Editor for SFTT, Roger Charles has written extensively on the 110-page GAO report.   Mr. Charles sadly concludes that despite shoddy test procedures against protocol test standards that are more than 30 years old,  the US Army (fully supported by the Department of Defense) selected the option that increased risk to the Soldier, while decreasing risk/cost to the contractors!

The National Research Council (“NRC”) has now released two reports in response to Secretary McHugh’s request to evaluate the US Army Test Procedures.  The Phase I NRC report on body armor was issued on December 30, 2009,  In this initial phase, the NRC committee evalutated to following subjects:

  • “The committee will comment on the validity of using laser profilometry/laser interferometry techniques to determine the contours of an indent made by a ballistic test in a non-transparent clay material at the level of precision established in the Army’s procedures for testing personal body armor. If laser profilometry/laser interferometry is not a valid method, the committee will consider whether a digital caliper can be used instead to collect valid data.
  • The committee will also provide interim observations regarding the column-drop performance test described by the Army for assessing the part-to-part consistency of a clay body used in testing body armor.”

The Phase II NRC report on body armor test procedures was released on April 22, 2010 and contains 19 specific recommendations to improve the integrity of body armor test procedures.   The report was issued on behalf of the committee by MG (ret) Larry G. Lehowicz to J. Michael Gilmore, Director, Operational Test & Evaluation for the DOD.

In the Phase II NRC Body Armor report (p. 11)  recommends that the “Army’s medical and testing communities should be adequately funded to expedite the research necessary both to quantify the medical results of blunt force trauma on tissue and to use those results as the updated mathematical underpinnings of the back face deformation (BFD) body armor testing methodology.

“Regardless of the current imperfect correlation between existing medical data and the BFD approach, the committee believes that the current methodology for testing body armor should be continued, mainly because this approach has allowed the Army to send body armor with adequate survivability characteristics to soldiers in combat. Importantly, the committee was informed earlier by the Program Executive Office–Soldier that no soldier deaths are known to be attributable to a failure of the issued ceramic body armor.”

While it is certainly reassuring that body armor reliability and testing integrity will be improved by the application of modern technology applied in a consistent manner, I find it surprising that the US Army has decided to withhold critical field data from the NRC to determine to determine the effectiveness of currently approved body armor.  Is it true that “no soldier deaths are known to be attributable to a failure of the issued ceramic body armor?”  Indeed, the New York Times reports that the US Army has autopsy reports that confirm that defective body armor has contributed to the death of our troops.

What is the truth?  The NRC is quite right in asking to examine US Army and Marine Corps autopsy records to further determine the level of protection afforded by our frontline troops.  Why is the US Army deliberately withholding this information?  The US Army, our Congressional leaders, the American public and, most importantly, our troops deserve  the comprehensive report that was promised them when Secretary McHugh requested the intervention of the NRC.  Anything less is reprehensible.  

There is still time for the NRC to insist on receiving autopsy data from the US Army.  For the NRC report to have any level of credibility, the inclusion of actual battlefield data based on autopsy studies is essential to determine the effectiveness of current body armor.  

Richard W. May

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