WASHINGTON – A top Army general said Thursday he knows of no case in which the military's body armor has failed to do its job in protecting troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Responding to a recent internal audit that found improper testing of body armor's bullet-blocking plates, Lt. Gen. William Phillips insisted that the Army provides soldiers with the "best body armor that exists in the world" and protection that also is the most tested.
"And I'll go on to say that I am not aware — if anyone is, please come forward — but I'm not aware of any incident downrange where the body armor failed to protect against a round (of ammunition) that it was designed to defeat," Phillips said.
The senior military official held a Pentagon news conference to respond to any concerns that the protective gear could be defective or unsafe. A Defense Department inspector general report earlier this month said the Army didn't fully test the bullet-blocking plates in some body armor in early years of the wars.
The 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 found the tests were incomplete, conducted with the wrong size plates or relied on ballistic test rounds that were inconsistent.
The report said the inspector general's office did not conduct its own tests and so couldn't say whether the plates were defective. But it also said the army couldn't be sure, either, that the plates met its standards for protection.
Some news reports on the audit described the plates as flawed, which the inspector general did not say, officials complained privately earlier this week.
"We want to make sure that your readers have complete and total confidence in the Army's ability to field protective (gear) to look after its soldiers while they're deployed in combat zones and that, internally, the soldier and their family knows that as well," Phillips said.
He said the Army began implementing all recommendations in the inspector general report two years ago, which is the time it took the inspector general to conduct the audit. All recommendations have been implemented and many were done a year ago, he said.
Phillips said soldiers have "the highest confidence" in the armor they are issued and "not one soldier voiced concern" during his recent trip to Afghanistan, though they want different pants and shoes that do a better job of limiting perspiration in the country's 115-degree-plus weather.
The confidence of soldiers in their gear is critical because it gives them the assurance they need to "engage the enemy in a heartbeat," he said.
Phillips read testimonials from troops and gave the example of recent Medal of Honor recipient Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta.
Giunta was "hit a number of times in the chest with AK-47 rounds and continued to fight ... because he had confidence in the equipment and he also wanted to save his fellow soldier," Phillips said.
Another Army officer in charge of fielding troop gear challenged a 2006 news report that 80 percent of Marines serving in Iraq who had been shot in the upper body had died because of "inadequate body armor." Those Marines were shot in the shoulder or armpit or other places the plates don't cover, Col. Bill Cole said, noting that troops can't have plates covering every part of their bodies.
The Aug. 1 inspector general report was the fourth in a series 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.
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. 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 inspector general report said the Army program manager for soldier equipment could provide only "limited assurance" that the plates met requirements. It 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.
During the period covered by the audit — 2004 to 2006 — the Army did not test how body armor responds when exposed to fungus and altitude, officials said Thursday. The Army asked for a waiver on that testing so it could rush the life-saving, new small-arms protective plates to troops in the field, Cole said.
The Army says it has 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.