WASHINGTON – A dispute over testing is stalling the Army's plans to move ahead with buying a new high-tech body armor now off-limits to soldiers.
The stalemate is the latest development in a complex disagreement over the quality of the protective gear, known as Dragon Skin, that is made by Pinnacle Armor of Fresno, Calif. The fight over body armor has spread beyond the Pentagon and reverberated throughout the country as families try to buy the best protection possible for loved ones serving overseas.
Murray Neal, Pinnacle's chief executive officer, said Friday he will not send the Army 30 vests to test next month, as planned, unless the Army agrees to his testing requirements.
Neal said he is worried the vests may be tampered with before the ballistic tests are conducted -- potentially giving the Army an excuse not to buy from Pinnacle Armor.
"I'm not going to leave it to chance that they could mess with the body armor prior to it being tested and that could cause premature failure," Neal said.
The Army says it has a contract for 30 vests and expects delivery.
"The expectations for the test are spelled out in the specification that was part of the contract that (Pinnacle Armor) signed," Army spokeswoman Maj. Desiree Wineland said. "The Army does not intend to make any changes to the contract that was signed."
The Army has said it wants to buy the best protective gear possible, including the Dragon Skin vest, if the gear passes testing. The current contract with Pinnacle is only for the 30 vest for testing.
Pinnacle's armor has been caught up in a series of contradictory statements about its worthiness. The Army last month banned soldiers from wearing it or any other armor not issued by the military. The Air Force, however, has ordered a number of the Dragon Skin vests.
"Our forces face a high enough threat on a consistent enough basis that they require the full 360-degree thoracic protection that the Dragon Skin body armor offers," said Capt. Regen Wilson, spokesman for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.
The body armor was ordered for OSI troops, but Regen would not say how many vests were ordered or how much the contract is worth.
Army officials had said previously that the Air Force recalled the vests after they failed tests.
In fact, according to a test results memo obtained by The Associated Press, the armor stopped the "level three-plus" ammunition rounds it is rated for. The armor did not do as well when more lethal ammunition was used -- level four rounds the armor was not rated to stop.
Neal said there were problems with the ceramic discs used in the vests. An earlier batch of the armor with different discs had stopped the higher powered shots, he said.
According to Neal and the Air Force memo, the company voluntarily decided to replace the ceramic discs. Wilson said the delivery of the new vests will be completed shortly.
Army officials said last month they banned the use of Dragon Skin and other nonmilitary issued armor because of concerns about reports that soldiers' families were raising money through bake sales to buy commercial armor for the troops. The commercial armor, Army officials said, either is untested or inadequate.
On Friday, Neal said the Army wants the 30 vests delivered a week or two before the ballistic testing is done. He said that changes a verbal agreement he had with Army officials that said the vests would go directly to the testing range and opened just before the shooting is done.
If the Army will not agree to those conditions, he said he will gather other Pentagon personnel and congressional members or staff for independent tests elsewhere.
Army spokesman Paul Boyce dismissed Neal's worries about the testing, saying said the armor would be handled carefully and evaluated thoroughly.
"We will continue to work with Pinnacle and encourage them to continue to do the same with the U.S. Army out of a mutual concern for American military personnel serving our nation," he said.