- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 24, 2009

Manufacturers of body armor say the U.S. Army’s decision to move testing from private companies to in-house has increased costs by more than 500 percent and undermined research and development of life-saving equipment.

In February, Army Secretary Pete Geren decided to move all testing of new body-armor products and protective gear already slated for troops overseas to the Aberdeen Test Center in Maryland in response to a Pentagon inspector general report that criticized Army quality-control procedures.

The Washington Times reported last week that the decision prompted an inquiry by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress.

An internal military e-mail recently obtained by The Times showed that the cost of testing armor at the Aberdeen facility is based on Defense Department rates, which are much higher than at private facilities.

“This testing will be done at contractor cost, but using DOD rates,” said Aberdeen’s ballistic technology officer, W. Scott Walton, in the Dec. 8 e-mail to military officials.

According to Mr. Walton’s e-mail, the total cost for manufacturers testing enhanced small-arms protective inserts, known as ESAPI, at the Army’s Aberdeen facility is about “$41,000” for initial tests, and tests for the newer inserts intended to stop the more deadly armor-piercing rounds, known as XSAPI, are about “$51,394.”

Eric Dunn, president of H.P. White, a private ballistics test facility that previously held the main contract with the Army, said his company charged manufacturers “$7,875.00 for the ESAPI and approximately $11,000 for the XSAPI plates.”

U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command spokesman Tom Rheinlander told The Times that “the test costs cited by outside sources … did not include other governmental costs incurred by the Program Executive Office or other agencies.” He said the Army is currently testing “to a much more rigorous set of protocols and is executing additional test events the commercial labs did not perform.”

Mr. Rheinlander added that the Defense Department’s inspector general requested a significant increase in test documentation, to include photos, video and test-article chain of custody.

“Most commercial labs do not have access to the full range of test center resources,” he said.

Mr. Dunn said the Army’s explanation is not valid.

“The Army justification for higher tests costs as a result of video, photography, increased test documentation and chain of custody are all items which are currently available by H.P. White and typically provided at little or no additional cost, depending on the item,” Mr. Dunn said.

Army officials said the higher costs are a result in part of the introduction of a new laser tool that measures the impact of bullets hitting plate inserts.

Mr. Dunn said the technology is a laser-scanning arm that is readily available at private labs. He added that the GAO has asked his company about the “technical competency of the Army’s new testing standard” used for tests on new equipment and on lots of protective gear going to troops overseas.

“All ballistic and nonballistic tests required by the old and new test standard can be performed by the private testing labs much cheaper than the government test lab,” Mr. Dunn said.

Asia Fernandez, president of Armacell, a small body-armor manufacturing and research facility in California, said the Army’s decision jeopardizes her company’s research and development unit, with dire potential consequences for the safety of U.S. troops.

“It will make developing new, more innovative products more difficult for my company,” she said.

If a product fails, then “I would have to consider whether I can afford to continue research on the product, if every time I have to test it, I’m paying more than $50,000,” she said.

“We want to produce the lightest and most protective wearing product,” Ms. Fernandez added. “Right now, the industry is giving the best of what we have, but it should be ongoing research and development to make it lighter and safer. A tired soldier is a dead soldier.”

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