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How Safe Is the U.S. Army’s Body Armor?

Posted on February 9, 2009 - Filed Under Body Armor |

The U.S. Army has ordered a recall of more than 16,000 sets of body armor after an audit by the inspector general of the Defense Department concluded that they failed tests to meet Army specifications. The IG fingers the Army for failing to conduct adequate testing before contracting for the armor. This is the second audit to blame the Army for the quality of body armor. A year ago, the IG found that the Army failed to follow federal contracting rules in procuring armor and concluded that the Pentagon had “no assurance” that nearly half of 28 contracts — worth nearly $3 billion — “met the required standards.”

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The new audit goes a step further, concluding that some of the ceramic ballistic inserts — bulletproof plates, in layman’s terms — in the armor are actually defective. The IG focused on “first article testing,” by which any design flaws are spotted and rectified during the manufacturing process. Such testing is meant to confirm that a product meets Army specifications. The audit says the Army didn’t perform or score the tests consistently. As a result, the audit report says, “we believe that three of the eight ballistic-insert designs that passed first article testing actually failed.” (See pictures of U.S. troops’ 5 years in Iraq.)
It is unclear where the 16,000 sets of armor are currently located or being used. Body armor is now standard issue for all military personnel in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 2001, the U.S. military has sourced body armor from nearly a dozen manufacturers. Almost from the start of the war in Iraq in 2003, the military has been criticized for failing to supply armor in sufficient numbers; more recently, the criticism has centered on the quality of the armor.
The IG’s latest audit was released to the media on Thursday by New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter. “I’m so angry that I can hardly speak of it,” Slaughter told TIME. “The one thing that will come of this is better testing and better record-keeping by the Army.” (Read “A Doctor’s Life in Baghdad.”)
The audit’s finding was contested by the Pentagon. In a press release, the Army said it “had already identified problems raised by the IG and has moved aggressively to fix them.” The statement says that “among the many important improvements already instituted is assigning responsibility for article testing to the Army Test and Evaluation Command instead of using outside contractors.”
Even so, Secretary of the Army Pete Geren has recalled the sets as a precaution. The Army statement quotes Geren as saying, “Let’s put this into perspective. Out of more than 2,300 body-armor tests conducted by the Army, the Department of Defense IG is questioning three of them.” Even those three, he adds, satisfied the department’s testers. “And let’s not forget, since 2002, we have produced and fielded over 2 million plates of body armor. That body armor has saved the lives of thousands of soldiers.”
Geren has asked the Deputy Secretary of Defense to adjudicate the opposing views of the IG and the Army. Representative Slaughter, who has made the pursuit of dodgy body armor a personal crusade — both IG audits were conducted at her request — said she was waiting for more potentially devastating audits to come. “We’re not done yet,” she says.

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