Body Armor Testing: What the GAO found

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During Preliminary Design Model testing the Army took significant steps to run a controlled test and maintain consistency throughout the process, but the Army did not always follow established testing protocols and, as a result, did not achieve its intended test objective of determining as a basis for awarding contracts which designs met performance requirements.

In the most consequential of the Army’s deviations from testing protocols, the Army testers incorrectly measured the amount of force absorbed by the plate designs by measuring back-face deformation in the clay backing at the point of aim rather than at the deepest point of depression.

The graphic depicts the difference between the point of aim and the deepest point.

GAO Body Armor Test Explanation

[NB: So, there it is — GAO is telling the Congress that after two and one-half years, Army testing failed, and failed so abysmally that $121 Million in protective plates already produced and in warehouses awaiting distribution were designated unsafe to issue because their qualifying tests were unreliable.]

Army testers recognized the error after completing about a third of the test and then changed the test plan to call for measuring at the point of aim and likewise issued a modification to the contract solicitation. [NB: Yes, you read this sentence correctly. After having the error pointed out to them, Army test officials decided the “fix” was to change the test plan/requirements so that this flaw would be consistent throughout all testing!!]

At least two of the eight designs that passed Preliminary Design Model testing and were awarded contracts would have failed if measurements had been made to the deepest point of depression. The deviations from the testing protocols were the result of Aberdeen Test Center’s incorrectly interpreting the testing protocols. In all these cases of deviations from the testing protocols, the Aberdeen Test Center’s implemented procedures were not reviewed or approved by the Army and Department of Defense officials responsible for approving the testing protocols. After concerns were raised regarding the Preliminary Design Model testing, the decision was made not to field any of the plate designs awarded contracts until after First Article Testing was conducted.

During First Article Testing, the Army addressed some of the problems identified during Preliminary Design Model testing, but GAO observed instances in which Army testers did not follow the established testing protocols and did not maintain internal controls over the integrity and reliability of data, raising questions as to whether the Army met its First Article Test objective of determining whether each of the contracted designs met performance requirements. The following are examples of deviations from testing protocols and other issues that GAO observed:

  • The clay backing placed behind the plates during ballistics testing was not always calibrated in accordance with testing protocols and was exposed to rain on one day, potentially impacting test results.
  • Testers improperly rounded down back-face deformation measurements, which is not authorized in the established testing protocols and which resulted in two designs passing First Article Testing that otherwise would have failed. Army officials said rounding is a common practice; however, one private test facility that rounds told GAO that they round up, not down.

[NB: So, a private test facility rounds BFD up, benefiting the soldier while the U.S. Army rounds BFD down, benefiting whom? If you guessed “contractors,” you got it right. Yet, the Army and the Pentagon continue to chant their mantra: force protection is our number one priorityforce protection is our number one priority. True, combat is inherently dangerous and unpredictable — but adding risks and hazards by issuing sub-standard protective gear grounds this mantra into a hollow and empty phrase.  Especially if you allow this chant to accompany media reports of a fallen warrior’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery or upon arrival of a flag-draped coffin at Dover AFB — “force protection is our number one priority…”.  It is simply an outrage that in the second decade of the 21st Century, American grunts still get the short straw when it comes to personal protective equipment?]

  • Testers used a new instrument to measure back-face deformation without adequately certifying that the instrument could function correctly and in conformance with established testing protocols. The impact of this issue on test results is uncertain, but it could call into question the reliability and accuracy of the measurements.
  • Testers deviated from the established testing protocols in one instance by improperly scoring a complete penetration as a partial penetration. As a result, one design passed First Article Testing that would have otherwise failed.

With respect to internal control issues, the Army did not consistently maintain adequate internal controls to ensure the integrity and reliability of test data. In one example, during ballistic testing, data were lost, and testing had to be repeated because an official accidentally pressed the delete button and software controls were not in place to protect the integrity of test data. Army officials acknowledged that before GAO’s review they were unaware of the specific internal control problems we identified.

As a result of the deviations from testing protocols that GAO observed, four of the five designs that passed First Article Testing and were certified by the Army as ready for full production would have instead failed testing at some point during the process, either during the Preliminary Design Model testing or the subsequent First Article Test. Thus, the overall reliability and repeatability of the test results are uncertain. Although designs passed testing that would not have if the testing protocols were followed, independent ballistics experts have not assessed the impact of the deviations from the testing protocols to determine if the effect of the deviations is sufficient to call into question the ability of those designs to meet requirements.

[NB; This sentence merits VERY close attention. GAO has raised the crucial issue of whether, for this life-or-death equipment, in use by DOD for over ten years, there is a problem with “the ability of those [protective plate] designs to meet requirements,” There is no dispute that in this sample of the five designs tested, four designs actually failed!! Notwithstanding that U.S. Army test officials certified these 4 failed designs as ready for full production.]

Vendors whose designs passed First Article Testing have begun production of plates. The Army has ordered 2,500 sets of plates (at two plates per set) from these vendors to be used for additional ballistics testing and 120,000 sets of plates to be put into inventory to address future requirements. However, to date, none of these designs have been fielded because, according to Army officials, there are adequate numbers of armor plates produced under prior contracts already in the inventory to meet current requirements.

Roger Charles

Editor and Senior Investigative Reporter for SFTT

Review the Report: http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d10119.pdf

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