Army defends body armor after report

August 18, 2011

The U.S. Army pushed back Thursday against a recent inspector general’s report that criticized the testing of body armor used by many soldiers in Afghanistan, praising the quality of the armor and playing down concerns.

At a Pentagon news conference, Lt. Gen. William Phillips, principal military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, told reporters that the ceramic plates used in soldiers’ body armor resulted in “the best body armor that exists in the world today, and the best-tested.”

The inspector general’s report, dated Aug. 1, took issue with the testing of various lots of ceramic inserts for body armor and questioned whether the right bullets were fired at the correct velocity at the samples. The report also said testing did not deal with humidity and temperature requirements, as well as weather and altitude factors.

The report said that “because we did not conduct any additional testing, we could not conclude that ballistic performance was adversely affected by inadequate testing and quality assurance.”

But Phillips said that he had just come home from Afghanistan, where troops returning from operations spoke well of the body armor. In fact, Phillips said, “our soldiers have the greatest confidence in their body armor,” adding that it is “a combat motivator.”

As an example, he cited a Medal of Honor winner, Staff Sgt. Salvatore A. Giunta, who was hit more than once in the chest but protected by his armor. He continued to fight and saved a comrade.

To bolster the Army’s case, officials released written testimonials, including an excerpt of comments by Staff Sgt. Fred Flow to the House Armed Services Committee in February 2009. In the report, Flow said, “I took three rounds to the chest — with body armor. . . . All three rounds were stopped by the plates. It hurt, but I was still mission capable. I was still able to do my job.”

Phillips said the inspector general’s report related to testing that was done on samples from 5 million insert plates valued at $2.5 billion, bought from 2004 to 2006. The body armor consists of an outer tactical vest and ceramic plates that are inserted in front and, sometimes, on the sides and in back.

Phillips said some planned tests were waived to get the armor more quickly to battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq. Testing is now done with the most potent bullets used by enemy weapons in Afghanistan and tested at velocities far beyond the capability of any such weapons, he said.

The Army is also taking the body armor of soldiers who pass through Kuwait on temporary leave and X-ray testing the plates to see whether they have been damaged. Phillips said that all the remaining recommendations from the inspector general’s report are being implemented, although the last ones will not be completed until October.

Some members of Phillips’s staff also questioned wounded servicemen in hospitals, asking about problems with equipment and clothing. Some have complained about the weight of the armor and said that troops moving through mountainous terrain sometimes remove the plates intended for side protection.

Officials said the helmets used by soldiers in Afghanistan also have been successful against enemy fire. In one instance, an American lieutenant noticed two Afghan National Army recruits leaving a firing range out of formation. When he approached, they fired at him — two bullets bounced off his helmet and a third passed near his neck before striking the back guard of the helmet.

The impact of the shots knocked the lieutenant on his back, but he was able to get up and use his carbine to kill the two Afghan soldiers.

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