Dragon Skin is a type of ballistic vest formerly made by the now defunct company Pinnacle Armor, currently produced in Missoula, Montana by North American Development Group LLC available for public, law-enforcement and military customers. Its characteristic two-inch-wide circular discs overlap like scale armor, creating a flexible vest that allows a good range of motion and is intended to absorb a high number of hits compared with other military body armor. The discs are composed of silicon carbide ceramic matrices and laminates, much like the larger ceramic plates in other types of bullet resistant vests.
The armor was c. 2007 available in one basic protection level: Dragon Skin Extreme (formerly SOV-2000), which until 2007 was certified to comply with the NIJ Standard-0101.06 as a level III resistant body armor.
Dragon Skin has been worn by some civilian contractors in Iraq, some special operations forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, some SWAT teams, nine generals in Afghanistan, bodyguards tasked with protecting generals, and U.S. Secret Service personnel. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has also purchased Dragon Skin.
Dragon Skin armor is made of an overlapping series of high tensile strength ceramic discs encased in a fiber glass textile. Different layout configurations with variations in coverage are available.
Dragon Skin Extreme is made of overlapping approximately 0.25-inch (6.4 mm) × 2-inch (51 mm) ceramic discs encased in a fabric cover. In evaluating the Dragon Skin system, it is important to note that while the external measurements of the Dragon Skin panel are 11.5 inches (290 mm) × 13.5 inches (340 mm), the area of level III coverage provided by the encased ceramic discs is 10 inches (250 mm) × 12 inches (300 mm); the fabric edges are not intended to provide ballistic protection. Weight of the Dragon Skin Extreme armor providing 10 inches (250 mm) × 12 inches (300 mm) of level III protection was approximately 6.4 lb (2.9 kg).
In a test for the History Channel's military show, Mail Call, the vest repelled nine rounds of steel-core ammunition from an AK-47 full automatic and 35 rounds of 9×19mm from a Heckler & Koch MP5A3, all fired into a 10-by-12-inch area on the vest. On Test Lab, also on the History Channel, the vest withstood 120 rounds fired from a Type 56 (7.62×39mm) rifle and Heckler & Koch MP5 (9×19mm). In another demonstration on the Discovery Channel series Future Weapons, a Dragon Skin vest withstood numerous rounds (including steel core rounds) from an AK-47, a Heckler & Koch MP5SD, an M4 carbine (5.56×45mm), and a point-blank detonation of an M67 grenade. While the vest was heavily damaged (mainly by the grenade), there was no penetration of the armor.
In 2007, NBC News had independent ballistics testing conducted of Dragon Skin versus Interceptor body armor. Retired four-star general Wayne A. Downing observed the tests and concluded that although the number of trials performed was limited, the Dragon Skin armor performed significantly better.
NBC also interviewed retired USMC Colonel James Magee, who was one developers of the Army’s then-current body armor, Interceptor. "Dragon Skin is the best out there, hands down. It's better than the Interceptor. It is state of the art. In some cases, it’s two steps ahead of anything I’ve ever seen."
In light of the May 2007 media investigations, senators Hillary Clinton and Jim Webb requested that Comptroller General of the United States David M. Walker initiate a Government Accountability Office investigation into the army's body armor systems.
After being confronted with conflicting information by lawmakers who questioned the NBC test results and provided Army-supplied data of vest failures from a May 2006 test, the technical expert solicited by NBC to certify its test backed away from his staunch defense of Dragon Skin and stated that the vests "weren't ready for prime time".
It was also featured on Time Warp on the Discovery Channel.
In Fresno, California, a police department commissioned the purchase of Dragon Skin for its officers after a vest stopped all the bullets fired during a test, including .308 rounds from a rifle and 30 rounds from a 9mm MP5 fired from five feet away. The armor also stopped 40 rounds of PS-M1943 mild steel-core bullets from an AK-47 along with 200 9 mm full metal jacket bullet fired from a submachine gun.
Dragon Skin became the subject of controversy with the U.S. Army over testing it against its Interceptor body armor. The Army claimed Pinnacle's body armor was not proven to be effective. In test runs for the Air Force there were multiple failures to meet the claimed level of protection. This coupled with poor quality control (over 200 of the 380 vests delivered to USAF OSI were recalled due to improperly manufactured armor disks) and accusations of fraudulent claims of official NIJ rating which Pinnacle had not actually obtained at the time of purchase led to the termination of the USAF contract. Pinnacle attempted to appeal this decision, but courts found in favor of the USAF.
On April 26, 2006 Pinnacle Armor issued a press release to address these claims and a product recall instigated by the United States Navy. The company stated that although vests were returned due to a manufacturing issue, a test on the Dragon Skin Level III armor was conducted by the United States Air Force Office of Special Investigations at a U.S Army Aberdeen Test Center in Aberdeen, Maryland in February 2006, which concluded that it "did not fail any written contract specifications" set forth by the Air Force, which was further stated by Pinnacle Armor to require high ballistic performance due to the hostile environments in which AFOSI operates.
Weapon review website Defense Review also published an article similarly dissenting, noting that in their test and review of the Dragon Skin armor, they had found that it was "significantly superior in every combat-relevant way to U.S. Army PEO Soldier's and U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center (NSC)/Soldier Systems Center's Interceptor Body Armor".
The Pentagon stated that the test results were classified and neither side could agree to terms on another, more comprehensive test. The Army wanted to hold and inspect the vests for 1–2 weeks before shooting at them, and Pinnacle wanted them shot at right away from out of the box because they said they feared the Army tampering with them in order to save their currently cheaper body armor program.
On May 19, 2006 it was announced that the dispute had been resolved and the vests were going to be retested again by the Army to clear the dispute. On May 20, 2006 it was announced by The Washington Post (and other newspapers) in an article titled "Potential Advance in Body Armor Fails Tests" that the Dragon Skin vests had failed the retest according to their anonymous source. Official results of these tests were classified at the time but have since been released by the Army.
On June 6, 2006 in comments posted on an online discussion forum, Karl Masters, director of engineering for Program Manager - Soldier Equipment, said he recently supervised the retest and commented on it. "I was recently tasked by the army to conduct the test of the 30 Dragon Skin SOV-3000 level IV body armor purchased for T&E [tests and evaluation]," Masters wrote. "My day job is acting product manager for Interceptor Body Armor. I'm under a gag order until the test results make it up the chain. I will, however, offer an enlightened and informed recommendation to anyone considering purchasing an SOV-3000 Dragon Skin—don't. I do not recommend this design for use in an AOR with a 7.62×54R AP threat and an ambient temperature that could range to 49°C (120 F). I do, however, highly recommend this system for use by insurgents..."
According to the Army, the vests failed because the extreme temperature tests caused the discs to dislodge, thus rendering the vest ineffective. Pinnacle Armor affirms that their products can withstand environmental tests in accordance with military standards, as does testing by the Aberdeen Test Center.
In response to claims made by several U.S. senators, Dragon Skin and special interest groups, on Monday, May 21, 2007, the Army held a press conference where they released the results of the tests they claimed Dragon Skin failed.
In April 2008 one of the Dragon Skin vests, with a serial number that identifies it as one of 30 vests bought by the Department of Defense for U.S. Army for testing in 2006, was listed and later bought from eBay. The seller, David Bronson, allegedly was connected to a U.S. Army testing facility. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the U.S. Department of Justice, and the F.B.I. are investigating the matter as of May 2008. The buyer described the vest as having been shot at least 20 times, with not a single through-penetration.
U.S. Army bans privately purchased body armor
On March 30, 2006 the Army banned all privately purchased commercial body armor in theater. Army officials told the Associated Press that the ban order was prompted by concerns that soldiers or their families were buying inadequate or untested commercial armor from private companies. The Army ban refers specifically to Pinnacle's Dragon Skin armor saying that the company advertising implies that Dragon Skin "is superior in performance" to the Interceptor Body Armor the military issues to soldiers. The Marine Corps has not issued a similar directive, but Marines are "encouraged to wear Marine Corps-issued body armor since this armor has been tested to meet fleet standards." NBC News learned that well after the Army ban select elite forces assigned to protect generals and VIPs in Iraq and Afghanistan wore Dragon Skin. General Peter W. Chiarelli made a statement that, "he never wore Dragon Skin but that some members of his staff did wear a lighter version of the banned armor on certain limited occasions, despite the Army ban."
H.P. White Labs conducted tests on Dragon Skin in May 2006. Even under normal conditions SOV 3000 failed to stop the second impact of M2AP. Then when the other tests were run, SOV 3000 failed multiple times, with the exception of the Salt Water test.
Certification and subsequent decertification
In an interview with KSEE 24 News, an NBC affiliate, on November 14 and 16, 2006, Pinnacle Armor detailed the five-year process that the NIJ and Pinnacle Armor went through to establish a test protocol and procedure for flexible rifle defeating armor, and then pass it for the certification.
On December 20, 2006, Pinnacle Armor said that they received the official letter from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) that they had passed the Level III tests, and that Dragon Skin SOV-2000 was now certified for Level III protection.
The Air Force, which ordered the Dragon Skin vests partially based on claims they were NIJ certified at a time when they were not, has opened a criminal investigation into the firm Pinnacle Armor over allegations that it had fraudulently placed a label on their Dragon Skin armor improperly stating that it had been certified to a ballistic level it had not yet been. Murray Neal, the Pinnacle Armor chief executive, claimed that he was given verbal authorization by the NIJ to label the vests although he did not have written authorization.
On August 3, 2007, the Department of Justice announced that the NIJ had reviewed evidence provided by the body armor manufacturer and had determined that the evidence was insufficient to demonstrate that the body armor model would maintain its ballistic performance over its six-year declared warranty period. Because of this, Dragon Skin was found to not be in compliance with the NIJ's testing program and has been removed from the NIJ's list of bullet-resistant body armor models that satisfy its requirements. Pinnacle CEO Murray Neal responded that this move was unprecedented, political, and not about the quality of the vests because they were not saying they have failed any ballistics tests. He stated it is about a dispute with the paperwork to deal with a warranty issue instead, in which the warranty period of Dragon Skin is longer than that of most other commercial vests.
After passing tests at United States Test Laboratory
On August 20, 2007, at the United States Test Laboratory in Wichita, Kansas, nine Dragon Skin SOV-2000 (Level III) body armor panels were retested, for the purpose of validating Pinnacle Armor's six-year warranty. The panels tested were between 5.7 years old and 6.8 years old. All items met the NIJ Level III ballistic protection, confirming Pinnacle Armor's six-year warranty for full ballistic protection. Pinnacle resubmitted the SOV-2000 vest to the NIJ for certification based on this successful testing, but this application was rejected because the test had not been properly documented. In November 2007, Pinnacle sued to force the NIJ to recertify the SOV-2000 vest; their case was found to be without merit and summarily dismissed in November 2013.
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