Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Dragon Skin: more marketing than fact

I've been skeptical of Dragon Skin armor for quite some time, mainly, that only one company was doing it. Armor has been around long enough that pretty much everything has been tried, excepting new materials that haven't been invented yet. What that means, basically, is that if Dragon Skin worked like TV like Future Weapons (which should be called Current Weapons, but that's another post) shows claim it does, there would be other companies making a similar product. What about patents, I hear you say? Have you looked into how much money Armor Holdings brings in per year? If this stuff worked, they'd own DS. Believe me, they have enough capital to buy any armor company in the world. Matter of fact, I would wager that the ones you've heard of are Armor Holdings companies.

Of course you don't believe me because you've called DS "The Greatest Thing in Armor Since Excalibur Was Forged" on a forum somewhere, and this is your Scared Cow...uh...Sacred Cow. Now that the testing info is coming out, you don't have to believe me. Believe an expert instead!

Flexible Rifle Resistant Armor Vs. Monolith Hard Plate Inserts

There is a raging debate as to which is superior against high powered rifle rounds, the flexible Dragon Skin (DS) body armor, or

the Interceptor Body Armor (IBA). There have been claims that the military has purposely failed DS because they didn't invent it,

and there are also numerous videos on the Pinnacle Armor web site and other places as well demonstrating the amazing performance of DS.

The debate has heated to the point where a major news media show "NBC Dateline" has seen fit to get involved , and that has caused Congress to call for a hearing on the matter all to make sure that our troops are getting the best equipment available especially as it relates to life saving equipment.

This is a very complicated subject and for the most part it boils down to testing to determine superior performance, but what kind of testing and how should it be performed to ascertain side by side comparative data? We have seen the demonstrations on Pinnacle's website, some video clips on the Army testing, and we have seen NBC's Dateline arrange what appeared to be independent testing. So what does it all mean?

In our view not a lot has been determined other than the DS Level 4 armor hasn't passed First Article Testing required by the Army.

We have constructed an analysis of the various tests people have seen, and why they are not conclusive in determining which armor system is best for the Army.

Beginning with Pinnacle Armor's website please draw your attention to the video titled, The History Channel Test Lab. It's located in the lower left corner of the page.

Dragon Skin Videos

When you view this video there are two separate tests. Referring to the first one where the Fresno Police take their shots against Dragon Skin using 7.62mm x 39mm ammunition allegedly brought in from Iraq. There were no identifying marks on the ammunition to prove they were armor piercing, no shrapnel recovered to prove it either, just a mention that it was steel cased and that it was real military ammunition. The ammunition was then referred to as military ball rounds, which indicates a soft core of lead. Nevertheless even if it was a mild steel core 7.62mm x 39mm rifle round with a steel jacket it would be representative of one of the most common threats, and it travels at about 2300 Ft./Sec., and represents some of the easiest military rifle rounds to defeat. With a full coverage DS vest it's easy to stop that many rounds, and I would say that with equal coverage using a hard plate version the performance would be relatively similar and at a lighter weight. The rest of the test involves 9mm ammunition being fired into ceramic rubble, previously defeated rounds, and the final backing material representative of a typical soft armor vest . Plus the test was conducted on a moving fixture at only a 90 degree angle to the target (this is important as we will show later in this analysis). This test really looks impressive, but in reality it's not, it's typical of today's armor, with the only real advantages being flexibility, and increased square area of coverage without gaps, which we agree are great features, but at a weight penalty that may or may not be acceptable to the various end users that would consider DS.

The second part of the test discusses the biggest threat to American troops called IED's, and the havoc these threats have caused in Iraq. The Hollywood stunt fabricators were called in to devise a method of creating a "realistic" IED threat using a fabricated air gun, launching manufactured shrapnel at about 900 Ft./Sec.. This was the worst test of all. The manufacturer was quoted by the narrator as not knowing what would happen, when in fact it was a known commodity the whole time. Any ballistic expert would have no problem predicting that steel shrapnel traveling at 900 Ft./Sec. would never get through a level 3 or 4 DS armor or hard plate armor like the IBA system, and in no way was the air gun even close to representing what a real IED can do in the battle field. Some of these IED's in fact have been known to penetrate Abram's tanks as quoted by numerous sources within the military.

The problem here is that these "testing shows" are designed to show Dragon Skin off in a positively amazing light to those who don't know the facts about ballistic testing.

In the video titled Discovery Channel Future Weapons the narrator and the hairless man firing the weapons made numerous comments about how awesome the AK-47 was, and how much punch it possesses, but in fact again there is no actual qualification of the round. Even if it were an API version (the worst of the AK-47 threats), which travels around 2500 - 2600 Ft./Sec. it doesn't matter, clearly plate technology is on par if the sizes were the same at a fraction of the cost. Once again the only real advantage proven is the flexibility and square area coverage, which we all agree is a fantastic thing, but says nothing as to whether or not it's a superior body armor. Another suspect issue is the distance at which they fire the rifles rounds, in almost every instance that we can see it's from about 20 feet. Typically it takes a rifle round nearly 50 feet to achieve a true spin, and up until that point it tends to wobble, and this very much plays into showing off performance you wont see at the ballistic testing laboratory.

There is also one video running around that shows off the newest level 5 plate, and a demostration that is supposed to show how it compares to steel plate and level 3 or 4 ceramic hard plates. There is no direct comparison of a level 5 Dragon Skin flexible insert and a Level 5 hard ceramic insert.

This is the theme in all the videos; moving test fixtures, unqualified rounds, distances that are an advantage to the armor performing better, comparative testing for fragments and other threats that really aren't comparative. No one is saying that DS isn't a great idea, and in the level 3 threat DS has probably proven all it needs to in order to be adopted by the police, SWAT, and "special ops" missions, but what about the big Army?

Military Testing

Go here to see video footage of Dragon Skin being tested in a real laboratory with a stationary test fixture with armor clearly being

tested in the areas where the Interceptor Body Armor would be tested against the APM2, the Army's projectile of choice. There were reportedly

many penetrations on various environmentally conditioned vest units. Clearly the video showed Mr. Murray Neal witnessing a clean hole in DS right in front of him with no excuses.

The Pinnacle Armor representative was probably afforded the opportunity to examine the bullet before it was hand loaded. The military tests differently than the NIJ for police body armor and for good reason, armor and other types of military equipment are subjected to grueling conditions in the field, and need to be either easily repaired or maintained and/or proven not to be susceptible to failure under the toughest conditions. This part of the market development can't be faked or jazzed up by movie or TV guys, this is real, and the laboratory only touched the surface of some of the weaknesses of the current model of DS with respect to facing level 4 threats.

Let me explain what I mean. The NIJ has developed a whole different test protocol for testing scalar armor. The reason is simple, the tiles pivot and move as armor bends around the body, and are adhered into place with adhesive coated fabrics. The tiles tend to open a bit as it makes the bend around the body, and this has led the NIJ to test at high angles of incidence. Soft body armor is tested twice on each panel at a 30 degree angle, and scalar armor in order to pass the standard must defeat additional rounds at extreme angles i.e. 30, 45, and even 60 degrees. They also are allowed to position the armor so you don't impact an area where the tiles overlap. This NIJ protocol should include a curvolinear clay filled torso box so that the armor is tested in the manner that it is worn, and precise positioning so the weakest point is impacted on every shot. Scalar armor systems are only as strong as the weakest link.

The Level 3 threat is typically less problematic than the level 4 APM2, and that's why we have seen a level 3 pass and a First Article Test (FAT) failure. The Army knows the weak spots, and they are going to test them. Review the illustration below to see our point:

Ray Segment "A" represents the path of a bullet at a test laboratory that is perpendicular to the backing box. The Dragon Skin armor is sitting flat, and we are illustrating a side view of how each tile is overlapped, and the fact that these tiles do not sit flat. They are angled against the 90 degree strike represented in ray segment "A". This angle gives a great advantage to the armor.

Ray segment "B" represents the corrected angle of attack with respect to the angle the tile actually sits when flat as depicted by angle "C".

Angle D is a reference point depicting a 90 degree angle to the backing box and parallel to ray segment "A".

Understanding the above pictorial representation lends an understanding of why you don't test this type of armor flat, and why you don't shoot at a 90 degree angle with respect to the backing box if you want to see how the armor performs at a true 0 degree obliquity at the weakest point.

When you flex the armor around the body the tile angles are exacerbated, and thus the importance of determining real 90 degree angles with respect to the test specifications is paramount. This means that you must adjust the backing box so that the tile is at the true angle of incidence called for in the specification with respect to the test barrel, and aimed at the exact weakest spots on every shot. Failure to do this will eliminate the possibility of evaluating a scalar armor design's efficacy. The Army wants to know this, and they will test scalar like this, it's that simple. If it can't pass at the weakest point, or after tough environmental conditioning tests that the Army requires then why should it be adopted as the best the armor for the Army?

NBC Testing

We have reviewed the date line testing in Germany, and could not see any testing that addressed the issues above with respect to how the tiles sit on a flat block of clay. It all appeared to be 90 degrees to the test box. To do a side by side test you would mount the interceptor body armor and then swivel the clay box to a 30 degree angle on every shot, but honestly since it is DS that has the weak points, all shots should have hit the weakest point, and at the best angle to create real 90 degree perpendicular shots with respect to the tile instead of the test box. So in effect this was not side by side testing unless they did some of the shot sequences as described above, but didn't actually show them on the broadcast.

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day this isn't a debate for the military and Congress to resolve, nor is it a an issue of which is better IBA or DS.

IBA in it's current form has passed First Article Testing, DS hasn't.

DS costs about 1800.00 dollars to manufacturer and is on sale for 5000.00 USD. If DS passes First Article Testing there are other consideration; Second Article Testing, weight, competitive bidding, and setting a manufacturer up to meet strict defense contractor QC guidelines and specifications. This takes a lot of time, and in the interim the question has been posed, "are the troops receiving inferior body armor"? They are receiving armor that has passed very tough testing, is serviceable in the field, and saves lives, and has passed (FAT). I agree that DS and other armors in the pipeline will replace IBA, as IBA is definitely coming to the end of it's generational life, but if we had adopted DS when Mr. Neal thought it was ready, we wouldn't be looking at some of the improvements he has made as a direct result of failures, and I would imagine that there will be more improvements as well before this controversy is decided.

One more point that I think is worthy of consideration. Hypothetically if a group of contractors collaborated and came up with a plane that met Air Force standards according to them, and if Congress bought them and delivered them to the Air Force, and they were told this is your airplane for the next ten years to defend this country without consulted or allowing the Air Force to test the plane during development, what do you think the Air Force would say, of course this wouldn't happen. So why should the Army have no say in what they are going to adopt as their infantry armor concept for the next 10 - 20 years. It is unrealistic to say the Army shouldn't have a big voice in what is going to be worn by the troops they train. The "video shows" and media hype has really undermined the effort to develop and procure new armor for our soldiers, and has caused a loss of confidence for the purpose of one manufacturer to try and land the richest body armor tender in military history, and that's very sad.

We are in the process of arranging testing of some of our designs with the military this summer and the one thing I want to leave all the readers with is a simple fact, "we are not a body armor manufacturer"; we sell components and arrange manufacturing, we are consultants, and intellectual property developers. So in theory Pinnacle Armor could actual be a customer of ours, although I doubt that the circumstances would come about to cause this to happen, but in theory any manufacturer of armor is potentially our customer for our new flexible rifle resistant armor. So although we have a look of a competitor, we are more about , consulting, and material & component sales. We are not as biased on this issue as some people involved.

Congress needs to look proactive or they lose votes, and an office that pays very well, NBC needs to sell advertising, Pinnacle wants to win the most lucrative military body armor contract ever tendered, and me, well I just want to make a good living doing what I have been doing since 1983, designing and developing armor systems and successfully bringing new concepts to market. The manufacturing part is no longer in our purview, but I did it for 12 years and invented the whole concept behind Dragon Skin, and that's a fact all backed by records you can't fake.

I invite anyone who has questions to contact me at your convenience.

Allan D. Bain

More articles regarding the politics of Dragon Skin can be found here.

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