By Paul Bedard, Washington Whispers
One of the most anticipated investigative reports concerning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is about whether the U.S. military's body armor on which warriors depend on to survive actually works. In 2007, a number of Democrats, including then Sen. Hillary Clinton, asked the Government Accountability Office to settle the matter. The request came amid persistent chatter in the blogosphere that the Army's enhanced small arms protective inserts, or ESAPI, are failing to stop bullets in Iraq and Afghanistan.
An insider tells Whispers that the GAO report, now set for release in September, will not find that the ESAPI system fails. This would back the Army's position that ESAPI ceramic plates stop rounds that would otherwise wound or kill service members. The Army's Program Executive Office Soldier (PEO) at Fort Belvoir, Va., provided a statement to Whispers: "The plates have stopped the threat round that they're designed to stop, meeting the Army's performance standard."
Internet scuttlebutt says the Institute of Pathology, the military's forensic medical examiner, has found shortfalls when matching a deceased wounds to the body armor worn at the time they were killed. But the insider told Whispers it is difficult to tell whether a wound came from a bullet or from the blast of a bomb, which ESAPI is not designed to defeat. "Ballistic projectiles essentially lose their identity when they impact these plates because of the destructive forces involved in defeating them," said Karl Masters, chief engineer at PEO. "It is very difficult to determine what they were."
Previously, the military has gone on record before Congress attesting to no failures. Col. Ed Smith of the Marine Corps Systems Command told Congress in 2007, "Our war fighters have the best body armor available. According to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, there have been no deaths attributed to the penetration of an enhanced small arms protective inserts, or ESAPI, by a threat round that it is designed to defeat. Our body armor works."
That does not mean the Army is off the hook. Our insider says the GAO is expected to criticize the way the Army is testing the planned successor to ESAPI, an improved system called XSAPI now in production. Some of the standards lack uniformity, the source says. The insider said the Army has no immediate plans to send those plates into battle unless the ballistic threat increases. "The Army is currently producing XSAPI for theater deployment as contingency stock," the Army statement to Whispers said.
Meanwhile, Congress may change the way it oversees body armor development. Currently, the system is funded out of a general operations and maintenance account. There is a move afoot to fund ESAPI like a weapons system with its own research and procurement lines in the budget so lawmakers can better track the program. The Army has bought nearly 2 million ESAPI front and back plates.
Army spokeswoman Debi Dawson told Whispers: "The Army cannot predict what the GAO report will say. We can state that ESAPI plates are performing at or above requirements for defeating the threat they were designed to defeat. As part of its continuous quality control of body armor, PEO Soldier has been X-raying ESAPI plates. If cracks are found, the plates are sent to Aberdeen Test Center in Maryland for further testing. Results of those tests indicate that when tested against the most prevalent round found in theater and on the most vulnerable part of the plate (the location of the crack), the ESAPI plates have successfully stopped the shots."
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