WASHINGTON – The Army improperly tested new bullet-blocking plates for body armor and cannot be certain that 5 million pieces of the critical battlefield equipment meet the standards to protect U.S. troops, the Defense Department's inspector general found.
The Pentagon report focused on seven Army contracts for the plates, known as ballistic inserts, awarded between 2004 and 2006 and totaling $2.5 billion. The inspector general's audit, carried out over a two-year period ending in March, found the tests were incomplete, conducted with the wrong size plates or relied on ballistic test rounds that were inconsistent. Due to the demands of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, tests under certain temperatures and altitudes were scrapped altogether.
"Consequently, the Army cannot be sure that ballistic inserts meet ... requirements," the report said. "As a result, the Army lacks assurance that 5.1 million ballistic inserts acquired through the seven contracts provide appropriate protection."
The inspector general said it did not conduct its own tests so it couldn't say whether the plates were defective.
In response, the Army said Tuesday that it had initiated improvements to the testing system before and during the inspector general's audit. The service also said "all inspector general recommendations to improve the testing processes have been implemented. ... The Army continues to work with the test community for test improvements to provide the best body armor possible to the soldier."
The Aug. 1 report was the fourth in a series by the inspector general in response to a request from Rep. Louise Slaughter. Since January 2006, the New York Democrat has pressed the military about the effectiveness of body armor after The New York Times reported that 80 percent of Marines serving in Iraq who had been shot in the upper body had died because of inadequate body armor.
The body armor used by most U.S. troops comprises a ballistic vest with two large, hard ceramic plates that protect the upper body from bullets and shrapnel. The equipment has been crucial for American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan for nearly a decade. During testing, the plates are attached to a clay block that substitutes for a soldier's body. A projectile is shot at the plates at a certain velocity to determine whether it can provide protection.
The 51-page IG report said the Army program manager for soldier equipment could provide only "limited assurance" that the plates met requirements. The inspector general found that for all seven contracts the program manager did not have a consistent way of measuring and recording velocity of the test rounds. Two designs were approved without valid tests.
The Army said it had created a database for test information, standardized the protocol for ballistic testing and continues to scan body armor plates before deployment and during a soldier's tour of duty to ensure there are no internal cracks.
"The Army conducts rigorous and extensive testing of body armor to ensure that it meets U.S. Army standards and is safe for use in combat," the service said in comments included in the report.
In an interview, Slaughter said she planned to write to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Army Secretary John McHugh, calling their attention to the inspector general's report. Both Panetta and McHugh are former House colleagues of Slaughter, a 13-term congresswoman.
"This needs to be told," she said, remembering the dead and wounded from the nation's wars. "At the least, we should have some confidence that this part is taken care of, that in the future more diligence is taken."