Dragon Skin is a type of ballistic vest made by Pinnacle Armor. It is currently produced in Fresno, California. 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 is available in three basic protection levels: SOV-2000, which has previously had certification to Level III protection; SOV-3000, which is rated as Level IV by the manufacturer, but has not officially certified as such; and a rating-unspecified "Level V" variant not available to the general public.
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. The Seattle superhero Phoenix Jones is also said to have incorporated Dragon Skin into his suit.
SOV-2000 armor is made of an overlapping series of high tensile strength ceramic discs encased in an sonic skin textile cover. Different layout configurations with variations in coverage are available.
AMI level III plates are fabricated using an outer 3 millimeters (0.12 in) MARS steel layer bonded to a compressed Dyneema backing, with a linex coating for spall reduction, resulting in a total plate thickness of approximately 1 inch (25 mm). AMI level III 12 inches (300 mm) × 14.5 inches (370 mm) plates weigh about 10 lb (4.5 kg) and 10 inches (250 mm) × 12 inches (300 mm) plates are about 9 lb (4.1 kg).
SOV-2000 is made of overlapping approximately 0.25 inches (6.4 mm) × 2 inches (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 SOV-2000 armor providing 10 inches (250 mm) × 12 inches (300 mm) of level III protection was approximately 5.5 lb (2.5 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 (7.62×39 mm) rifle and Heckler & Koch MP5 (9×19 mm). 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, an Heckler & Koch MP5SD, an M4 carbine (5.56×45 mm), 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. 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. Ninety-eight federal, state, and local law enforcement officers witnessed the SWAT test. 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 SOV-2000 level III armor was also tested the week of October 2, 2006 by Dr. Gary Roberts, LCDR, USNR, Stanford University Medical Center. These tests were conducted for a local law enforcement agency, as a control sample a stand-alone Armored Mobility Incorporated (AMI) level III steel composite plate armor was used for comparison. Both types of armor were conditioned for 12 hours at 170 °F (77 °C), then moved to ambient air for approximately 90 minutes prior to being shot. The problems associated with the use of inelastic clay backing material have been well documented; as such, the armor was secured to a life-size curvilinear torso replica made of Perma-Gel. Each armor system was shot a minimum of 20 times with five rounds of each ammunition type fired against each armor system—one 90 degree perpendicular shot, two shots at 60 degrees obliquity, and two shots at 30 degrees obliquity, using each of the following loads fired at a distance of 10 feet (3.0 m):
- 5.56 mm 40 gr LeMas Urban Warfare (using a moly coated Nosler Ballistic Tip bullet) with a 3,718 feet (1,133 m) per second average velocity.
- 5.56 mm M855 62 gr FMJ with a 3,054 feet (931 m) per second average velocity.
- 7.62×39 mm M43 123 gr steel-core FMJ with a 2,307 feet (703 m) per second average velocity.
- .30-06 M2 150 gr FMJ with a 2,736 feet (834 m) per second average velocity.
All of the above ammo was successfully stopped by both armor systems in this testing, with no armor failures or penetrations, even after receiving multiple hits.
|Official Army Test Results |
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 tests run 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 120 F. I do, however, highly recommend this system for use by insurgents..."
In response to these claims, Pinnacle Armor released a press release on June 30, 2006. Official results of these tests are classified.
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 (GOA), the U.S. Department of Justice, and the 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 that 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."
Certification and subsequent decertification
In an interview with KSEE 24 News, an NBC affiliate, on November 14, 2006 and November 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 it was NIJ certified at a time when it was 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 has determined that the evidence is insufficient to demonstrate that the body armor model will maintain its ballistic performance over its six-year declared warranty period. Because of this, Dragon Skin has been found not 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 are not saying they have failed any ballistics. He says 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.
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 5.75 years old and 6.6 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. As of November 2007, Pinnacle is suing to force the NIJ to recertify the SOV-2000 vest.
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