- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Body-armor manufacturers are raising concerns that a Pentagon decision to move armor testing from private labs to an Army research center will increase costs and slow the availability of lifesaving equipment as thousands of additional U.S. troops head to Afghanistan.

Those concerns have prompted the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, to open an inquiry, The Washington Times has learned.

Army Secretary Pete Geren decided in February to strip private contractors of responsibility for quality and safety testing after a Pentagon inspector general report criticized Army quality-control procedures.

As a result, Mr. Geren moved testing to Aberdeen Test Center in Maryland, prompting a rare public controversy within a community of private contractors that prides itself on keeping secret the ways in which the United States protects its troops.

Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Army and Marine Corps have faced periodic criticism over their purchases of body armor.

The controversy ranged from concerns over supplies of vests and armor inserts designed to stop bullets to whether both services were purchasing the best equipment, especially as technology improved.

So far, the Army is the only branch of the military that is testing body armor at the Aberdeen facility, which is not certified by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), an evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Army on Tuesday acknowledged that the GAO has launched an inquiry, but said it is satisfied with the pace, quality and cost of testing at Aberdeen.

U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command (ATEC) spokesman Tom Rheinlander said in response to questions submitted by The Times that it is “meeting or exceeding” its deadlines, but that it retains the option to involve “partners in private industry to augment ATEC capabilities.”

It also said the quality of its tests is superior to those performed in the past by private labs.

“ATEC currently is testing to a much more rigorous set of protocols and is executing additional test events the commercial labs did not perform,” Mr. Rheinlander said in an e-mail.

Several defense contractors who make body armor and other protective gear for the military said, however, that they are already seeing spikes in the price they pay for the mandatory testing and that the pace of testing has slowed so much that gear is beginning to stack up on their shelves. Some of the manufacturers had working relationships with test facilities no longer used by the Army

“I think it could lead to a serious problem,” said Dave Reed, president of North American operations with Ceradyne Inc., which develops, manufactures and markets advanced technical ceramic products for the Defense Department and other entities. “I’ve recommended to the Army that they should go outside of Aberdeen and back to the private sector because of the delays. I haven’t seen them do that yet.”

Mr. Reed said lot testing of ceramic plates “used to take only a day at private certified facilities, and can now take more than five days at Aberdeen.”

Ceradyne was awarded an $8.1 million contract in April for its Small Arms Protective Inserts (SAPI) from the U.S. Army. The company has also received a $77 million order for newer body armor plates intended to stop armor-piercing rounds, known as XSAPI.

Another executive with a protective-gear manufacturing company that has Army contracts said that Aberdeen, originally founded to be a long-term research-and-development facility, “is already facing a backlog with testing our protective gear.” The executive spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution.

“The tests are taking much too long, and the equipment is basically sitting on my shelves,” the executive added. “They may argue that the tests are ensuring safety, but they really aren’t doing anything different than the private facilities, other than slowing us down and presenting a potentially serious problem for troops in the future.”

Another concern is high costs.

“Now I have to pay $50,000 every time I test a new product,” said Asia Fernandez, president of Armacell, a small body-armor manufacturing and research facility in California. She said testing used to cost $16,000 to $17,000. “What happens if it doesn’t pass? Then I have to think very, very, carefully if I want to continue the research and that is detrimental to our soldiers who rely on new research and life-saving equipment.”

H.P. White, a private ballistics test facility that held the main contract with the Army, said there was no significant reason for the Army to change procedures.

“There is no disinterested or third party,” said Eric Dunn of H.P. White. “We were held accountable for transparency, quality and practices.” He said that U.S. authorities “regularly audit our systems [and] review our administrative quality-control policies and records, training records, competency performance testing, control testing, laboratory equipment calibration and quality control. One or two times a year and randomly done.”

When an initial inquiry last year revealed anomalies in the Army’s testing procedures, members of the House Armed Services Committee asked for a more comprehensive GAO investigation. The members included Chairman Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat; then ranking member Duncan Hunter, California Republican; Rep. Neil Abercrombie, Hawaii Democrat; and Rep. Jim Saxton, New Jersey Republican.

Mr. Hunter, who is now retired, told The Times that there must be balance between the private sector and the Army, with the Army doing the final testing. He said delays in manufacturing, however, are not acceptable and that the Armed Services Committee should ensure that bottlenecking is not occurring.

“Of course, the reason you ultimately have military tests is because the Army is accountable for the capabilities of its equipment,” Mr. Hunter said in a telephone interview. “If you can achieve the same quality, they should use the private sector, where quality and cost are favorable to the taxpayer.”

Mr. Abercrombie, chairman of the House Armed Services air and land forces subcommittee, and Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, Maryland Republican, sent a letter in February to Mr. Geren asking for additional information on the issue. The Times obtained a copy of the letter, which has not been made public.

“It remains unclear what rationale would result in excluding proven, independent National Institute of Justice certified ballistic laboratories from providing validated, cost-effective and surge-capable lot-acceptance test services to the Army,” the letter stated. “These independent laboratories have proven expertise with respect to body-armor tests and evaluation and proved to be a vital asset in providing the necessary surge capabilities to the military services in order to rapidly address increased demands for body armor during 2004-2007. The other military services have not issued a similar policy directive regarding lot acceptance at independent National Institute of Justice certified ballistics laboratories.”

Mr. Bartlett said the full committee is anticipating the release of the new GAO report in June and hopes it will “remove all doubt” about the quality of testing and body armor.

“We’re bending over backward in the industry and the Congress to reassure the parents out there that our armor is the best that it can be,” Mr. Bartlett said.

Mr. Geren defended his decision to move the testing in a letter sent March 30 to congressional representatives, stating that testing at a government facility “would significantly reduce the risk of recurrence of the types of issues” the Defense Department’s inspector general reported.

The Times first reported in February that failure in the Army’s procurement procedures led to the recall of more than 16,000 sets of small protective plates intended for troops overseas.

The Pentagon inspector general found that in 11 of 28 contracts, adequate files were not kept and that it could not determine whether the best-informed decisions were made regarding procurement of body armor.

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