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Army counters negative report on body armor testing

By Larry Shaughnessy, CNN Pentagon Producer
The bullet-resistant plates in question are used in the body armor vests worn by virtually every soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The bullet-resistant plates in question are used in the body armor vests worn by virtually every soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • Inspector General report cited improper testing on 5 million bullet-resistant plates
  • Army officials call bullet-resistant plates "the best body armor ... in the world today"
  • Report didn't say plates were necessarily faulty, but had not been completely tested
  • Command sergeant major tells anecdote emblematic of armor's toughness

Washington (CNN) -- A negative report from the Pentagon Inspector General's office prompted the Army on Thursday to show off what it says is "the best body armor that exists in the world today."

The Department of Defense I.G. found that between 2004 and 2006, the Army improperly tested more than 5 million bullet-resistant plates that are inserted into the body armor vests that virtually every soldier wears while in hostile areas in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At question was the ceramic and synthetic fiber plates that are inserted into the front, sides and back of the bulky vests that almost all U.S. troops wear when they venture into hostile territory.

The I.G. report didn't say the plates themselves were necessarily faulty, only that they had not been completely tested. The Army said it started implementing the changes recommended by the I.G. months before the report came out.

"We can always improve our process, we can always get better," Lt. Gen. William Phillips, who is principal military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, told reporters during a briefing Thursday. "As we learn about better ways of testing, it's important that we implement those changes. In working with the DoD I.G., we were able to determine that we can improve our process, we can improve how we test those changes and we have implemented those changes."

As a result, Phillips said, "We do provide our soldiers the best body armor that exists in the world today. It is the most tested body armor in the world today."

"I am not aware of any incident down range where the body armor failed to protect against a round that it was designed to defeat," Phillips said.

One of the Army's top enlisted soldiers told a story that showed just how tough the body armor is.

Command Sgt. Major Bernard McPherson said two 101st Airborne soldiers were on a mission in Afghanistan. "An insurgent with an AK-47 got the drop on one of the soldiers," McPherson said. "The soldier reached out, grabbed the muzzle of the AK-47, pulled it to him (and) took two shots in the plate that gave the soldier's partner enough time to come around and kill the insurgent."

The force of two point-blank shots to the ballistic plate did injure the soldier, McPherson said, but the bullets from the AK-47 didn't go through the plates.

One way the Army makes sure a soldier's body armor does its job is with regular testing, in some cases even without the soldier knowing it. All soldiers' body armor plates are X-rayed prior to deployment and again before their tour of duty is up.

Most soldiers on a 12-month tour of duty get a mid-tour R&R leave that lasts about two weeks, flying home through Kuwait.

"The soldiers on their way to the airport (in Kuwait) on mid-tour leave will drop off their body armor," explained Col. William Cole, Project Manager for Soldier Protection. "While they're gone, there is a crew that will pull the plates out of their body armor and take it over to the X-ray machine and X-ray all plates, and if we find any that are cracked, which is rare but occasionally it happens, we'll immediately replace them so two weeks later when they come back, they pick up their body armor and go back (to Afghanistan). Most of them have no idea that we have even done that."