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Defense Department Examines Body Armor

September 21, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now, another side to the Iraq war effort key to the congressional debate over the Defense Department’s budget. Here’s the first of a three-part series on how the military decides which equipment to provide U.S. troops. Tonight, the subject is body armor. Our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, is the reporter.

CROWD (singing): Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you…

PAUL SOLMAN, NewsHour Economics Correspondent: The U.S. Army’s 232nd birthday party in the Pentagon’s inner courtyard.

CROWD: … happy birthday, dear Army, happy birthday to you.

PAUL SOLMAN: On display, new recruits for the Army…

ARMY RECRUITER: Go get ’em. Congratulations. Welcome aboard. We need you.

PAUL SOLMAN: … new stuff for the troops, first and foremost, the very latest body armor.

LT. COL. ROBERT MYLES, U.S. Army: I’m confident, as a product manager, that we are fielding the best body armor that is available to our soldiers.

PAUL SOLMAN: But then, how to explain this?

JAVIER LAROSA, Parent of Marine: If my son gets shot in the chest while he’s wearing one of these things, he was murdered.

PAUL SOLMAN: Families across the country, like Javier and Marion LaRosa, have, for several years now, been trying to buy different body armor for loved ones headed to Iraq.

JAVIER LAROSA: The least that we can do is give them something to give a better chance of coming back alive.

PAUL SOLMAN: Xavier Hermosillo has several family members in the fight.

XAVIER HERMOSILLO, Air Force Parent: It’s bad enough that they’re there and being shot at, but to not have the best possible equipment is criminal.

PAUL SOLMAN: The charge in its starkest form: that the way our military buys equipment, the procurement system, has wound up shortchanging our troops in combat, costing lives at the front, both American and Iraqi.

The debate has raged very visibly over the body armor issued to U.S. troops. Interceptor, made by six different contractors — outer vest made of Kevlar and material to repel flak, and even pistol rounds; inserted ceramic plates to resist assault rifle fire.

JAVIER LAROSA: Thank you very much, and God bless you.

PAUL SOLMAN: Families like the LaRosas in Tennessee have been raising money to privately buy armor called Dragon Skin. Its scale-like design of overlapping ceramic disks, its manufacturer claims, repels bullets better, is more flexible, covers more of the body. But the Army and Marines have banned Dragon Skin because, says Mark Brown, the general now in charge of procuring body armor, it failed the Army’s test.

BRIG. GEN. MARK BROWN, U.S. Army: The bottom line is, it does not meet Army standards.

PAUL SOLMAN: Some parents, however, are suspicious of the testing and say the troops are getting a raw deal.

XAVIER HERMOSILLO: Don’t tell me that I can’t protect my son or my son-in-law, my partner, et cetera, with the best possible vest because of Army politics. I won’t tolerate that.

PAUL SOLMAN: While the Army, despite requests over several months, wouldn’t talk to us about how its procurement policies affect the troops, skeptics were eager to.

PIERRE SPREY, F-16 Designer: The soldier always gets skimped on.

Critics of Army procurement

Col. Jim Magee (Ret.)
U.S. Marine Corps
There's no constituency for body armor in America. Is Lockheed Martin, Northrop-Grumman, Raytheon in the body armor business? Hell, no! You know, there's no money in it.

PAUL SOLMAN: At a book event in Washington recently, Pierre Sprey, an engineer who helped design the F-16 fighter, worked under Robert McNamara at the Pentagon, and has since become a critic of it, said the reason is obvious: There's a revolving door between the military and industry. Thus, those in the procurement system, when they spend money...

PIERRE SPREY: ... spend it on the high-ticket items that would get them their jobs as vice presidents of Northrop and Grumman and McDonnell and Boeing and so on. Because all the contractors were behind it, the congressmen were voting like crazy for it, and all the generals, you know, were seeing their future, their future retirement dependent on these programs.

PAUL SOLMAN: Programs like the $110 million Osprey, the $350 million F-22, this $2.5 billion submarine, a new $3.3 billion Destroyer, the $13.7 billion CVN-21 aircraft carrier.

Meanwhile, one complete set of Interceptor body armor goes for less than $1,000. To outfit our entire Armed Forces, active and reserve, $2 billion at most, says former Marine Colonel Jim Magee, who went into the body armor industry, claims that because of the modest amounts...

COL. JIM MAGEE (Ret.), U.S. Marine Corps: There's no constituency for body armor in America. Is Lockheed Martin, Northrop-Grumman, Raytheon in the body armor business? Hell, no! You know, there's no money in it.

PAUL SOLMAN: Or not enough money to avoid worrying about cost.

COL. JIM MAGEE: In order to reduce cost in something that's made of fabrics, you need to reduce the amount of fabric that's in the item. And in the case of body armor, that's Kevlar, which is why they went to, you know, shrank at the shoulders to this almost bra-strap-like thing they have now, a big scallop in the back of the body armor that makes no sense at all. I mean, it exposes your kidneys, but it took out 200 inches, and 200 inches translates to cost.

PAUL SOLMAN: Working within the cost constraints, Magee helped develop the Army's Interceptor body armor, but has become a fan of its banned rival, Dragon Skin, a technology he says...

COL. JIM MAGEE: ... is two generations ahead of anything I've ever seen.

PAUL SOLMAN: And he's not the only one. Newcomer Dragon Skin has been hyped on cable TV...

HISTORY CHANNEL HOST: How do you feel about that, huh, buddy? This guy doesn't have any bullet holes in him.

PAUL SOLMAN: Rah-rah clips are up on the Internet.

BODY ARMOR TESTER: Everywhere. Boom, boom, boom, boom, rounds everywhere.

PAUL SOLMAN: And in May, NBC News investigative reporter Lisa Myers did several stories questioning the Army's tests, and NBC ran its own independent testing.

LISA MYERS, NBC News Correspondent: In that testing, Dragon Skin outperformed the Army's body armor in stopping the most lethal threats.

Testing combat armor

PAUL SOLMAN: The late four-star Army General Wayne Downing, an NBC News analyst, observed the tests.

GEN. WAYNE DOWNING (Ret.), U.S. Army: Well, what we saw today, Lisa -- and, again, it's a limited number of trials -- Dragon Skin was significantly better.

PAUL SOLMAN: The debate was on with a vengeance. Were our troops being shortchanged, or weren't they? The Army promptly questioned NBC's test, released the data to prove Dragon Skin had failed Army testing catastrophically.

BRIG. GEN. MARK BROWN: We tested eight vests, four failed, 13 penetrating shots out of 48. All six of the current body armor producers of the U.S. Army in their employ passed this live-fire test protocol with zero failures. Zero failures is the correct answer. One failure is sudden death and you lose the game.

PAUL SOLMAN: Congress then weighed in with a hearing. CEO Murray Neal of Pinnacle Armor, Dragon Skin's maker, blasted the Army.

MURRAY NEAL, CEO, Pinnacle Armor: The information coming out from the Army is fraught full of inaccuracies.

PAUL SOLMAN: House members then blasted Pinnacle's CEO.

CONGRESSMAN: Is it your intent to impugn the integrity of the Army?

REP. PHIL GINGREY (R), Georgia: It astounds me to hear you suggest that our military would rig the system in favor of some favored vendor, contractor when lives are at stake.

PAUL SOLMAN: The military then took center stage and offered in evidence specialist Greg Miller, shot in Iraq last December.

MILITARY SPOKESMAN: Fortunately, he was wearing Interceptor body armor. With your indulgence, I'd like to thank him publicly for his outstanding service to our nation.

PAUL SOLMAN: Republican Trent Franks of Arizona, however, asked the Army to test Interceptor against Dragon Skin, one on one, much as NBC had.

REP. TRENT FRANKS (R), Arizona: Let's test this out and get to the bottom of it and do what's right for the soldiers of this country.

Supporting Dragon Skin

Wilson Wheeler
Center for Defense Information
The law is full of loopholes, and they're not even enforcing what tatters are left of the old revolving-door legislation.

PAUL SOLMAN: Meanwhile, the debate on blogs, military message boards, and elsewhere railed on about the adequacy of U.S. body armor and the military's testing of it. Engineer Nevin Rupert, for example, was the reigning Army expert on Dragon Skin for one of the military's main test labs, yet he had been barred from the Army test at which Dragon Skin was penetrated "catastrophically." Why barred?

NEVIN RUPERT, Former Army Engineer: No explanation. He was my supervisor. He determines whether I can go or not.

PAUL SOLMAN: And this is who?

NEVIN RUPERT: I can't give names.

PAUL SOLMAN: Being careful -- his lawyer there as we spoke -- Rupert won't give names. No wonder, since after objecting to his exclusion, Rupert was fired for insubordination and is now suing.

Why fired? Well, he supported and still prefers Dragon Skin, thinks Army officials were trying to sabotage it to protect Interceptor contractors. And who was championing Interceptor? A then-colonel named John Norwood.

NEVIN RUPERT: He wrote a request to my directorate chief requesting that I be removed from the flexible body armor program.

PAUL SOLMAN: Meanwhile, Norwood, present at the test that failed Dragon Skin, retired last summer, immediately went to work for Interceptor contractor Armor Holdings, with $350 million in body armor contracts in the year since Norwood's appointment. Norwood declined our request for an interview.

While General Mark Brown wouldn't give us an interview either, he did talk to NBC's Lisa Myers in the spring.

LISA MYERS: Are you aware that an Army colonel who oversaw the testing of Dragon Skin now works for one of the companies making the Army's current body armor?

BRIG. GEN. MARK BROWN: Yes, I'm aware.

LISA MYERS: And you're not troubled?

BRIG. GEN. MARK BROWN: No, I'm not troubled at all.

LISA MYERS: And you don't see a conflict of interest at all?

BRIG. GEN. MARK BROWN: Not since he followed all the laws and regulations and ethical rules about post-service employment, no, I don't see a conflict.

PAUL SOLMAN: We asked Winslow Wheeler, a longtime Capitol Hill staffer turned defense spending watchdog, for his reaction.

WINSLOW WHEELER, Center for Defense Information: The law is full of loopholes, and they're not even enforcing what tatters are left of the old revolving-door legislation.

PAUL SOLMAN: And the practice of someone leaving the military for a job with a company he awarded contracts to?

WINSLOW WHEELER: It's standard behavior. It's the way the system works. It's the way the system keeps itself going.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now based at Camp Pendleton, Lieutenant General James Mattis commanded Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. He thinks procurement officers are obvious choices for industry.

LT. GEN. JAMES MATTIS, U.S. Marine Corps: We're all human, and I can't say that something like that couldn't exist. But I can tell you that when probably more than 75 percent, 80 percent of the officers at Quantico are fresh back from fighting overseas, and the rest of them are probably preparing their c-bags to go overseas, it's not an environment in which that sort of thing would be allowed to exist for long, simply out of the self-interest of those Marines who were there and who have the interest of their troops at heart, who they've been fighting alongside.

Interest in favored armor vendors

Javier LaRosa
Go to Consumer Report, go to the police department, wherever, whoever anybody trusts, put them on, on an open field, shoot at them. The one that comes out the best, if it happens to be Interceptor, I'll eat my words.

PAUL SOLMAN: But there's evidence of other interests, as well. The main Interceptor contractor over the years has been Point Blank. Yet, in 2005, the Marine Times reported that Point Blank's Interceptor vests had been failing quality tests for two years and were now experiencing actual penetrations by bullets they were designed to repel.

Marine Colonel Gabe Patricio had issued waivers to send thousands of Point Blank vests from the same test lots to the front, despite complaints from the civilian tester that they would jeopardize lives.

You waived Point Blank vests?

COL. GABE PATRICIO (Ret.), U.S. Marine Corps: I waived those particular lots, that's correct.

PAUL SOLMAN: Why? Because they'd passed his own test at a private lab, says Patricio, and vests were badly need at the front.

COL. GABE PATRICIO: In my conscience, I could not be sitting on 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 vests that were sitting in a dispute that I was absolutely convinced, after seeing independent testing, that they should leave, go to the field, and provide Marines the protection that I believed they deserved.

PAUL SOLMAN: But fueling doubt about the procurement process is the long list of this same company's trials and tribulations. Point Blank had already been sued by several police departments accusing them of making defective vests. The Point Blank vests Patricio waived were recalled from Iraq, 5,000 of them.

Point Blank's parent company, DHB, was at the time the subject of a Defense Department and a criminal investigation, still ongoing. DHB's former president, who signed the waivers with Colonel Patricio, is under criminal indictment for accounting fraud. Meanwhile, three people who worked for Colonel Patricio in the Marines went to work for Point Blank's parent, DHB.

Patricio himself retired two years ago and set up a company to consult with the military on the testing of, among other things, body armor. Yet, he insists, the revolving door isn't necessarily what it seems.

What don't people who are suspicious of it not understand about the revolving door?

COL. GABE PATRICIO: Well, we all have a right to make a living. There's a certain workforce required in the area to perform these services and, clearly, there are people that come off of uniform or, quite frankly, from the civil service, as well, that have those skills and expertise that are necessary to help the government continue to do its business for the private sector. And so it seems like a natural transition.

PAUL SOLMAN: Natural to some, suspect to others.

COL. JIM MAGEE: The SEC's filed an investigation on them. The stockholders have a -- they filed suit against them. The Marines had some quality control issue with some of the vests, but somehow Point Blank kept getting the orders. I mean, it's bewildering to me how this can be justified.

PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, Point Blank continues to make Interceptor body armor vests for our troops, getting a contract just this June for another $50 million. Meanwhile, rival Dragon Skin is still banned by the Army and Marines and is under threat of debarment by the Air Force.

Families like the LaRosas, however, won't be convinced until someone else tests Interceptor against Dragon Skin.

JAVIER LAROSA: Go to Consumer Report, go to the police department, wherever, whoever anybody trusts, put them on, on an open field, shoot at them. The one that comes out the best, if it happens to be Interceptor, I'll eat my words.

PAUL SOLMAN: The Army has requested submissions for new body armor testing this fall, but no head-to-head testing against Interceptor, independent or not, is scheduled or contemplated.

JIM LEHRER: Part two in Paul's series looks at the guns the troops are using.