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Dispute between Army, maker of body armor stalls testing

WASHINGTON -- A dispute over testing is stalling the Army's plans to move ahead with buying a new high-technology body armor that is now off-limits to soldiers.

The stalemate is the latest development in a disagreement over the quality of the protective gear, known as Dragon Skin, that is made by Pinnacle Armor of Fresno, Calif. The fight over body armor has spread beyond the Pentagon and has reverberated throughout the country as families try to buy the best protection for loved ones serving overseas.

Murray Neal, Pinnacle's chief executive officer, said Friday that he will not send the Army 30 vests to test next month, as planned, unless the Army agrees to his testing requirements.

Neal said he is worried the vests may be tampered with before the ballistic tests are conducted. This may give the Army an excuse not to buy from Pinnacle Armor.

''I'm not going to leave it to chance that they could mess with the body armor prior to it being tested, and that could cause premature failure," Neal said.

The Army has said that it has a contract for 30 vests and that it expects delivery.

''The expectations for the test are spelled out in the specification that was part of the contract that [Pinnacle Armor] signed," said Major Desiree Wineland, an Army spokeswoman. ''The Army does not intend to make any changes to the contract that was signed."

The Army has said that it wants to buy the best protective gear possible, including the Dragon Skin vest, if the gear passes testing. The current contract with Pinnacle is only for the 30 vests for testing.

Pinnacle's armor has been caught up in contradictory statements about its worthiness. Last month, the Army banned soldiers from wearing it or any other armor that had not been issued by the military. The Air Force, however, has ordered a number of the Dragon Skin vests.

''Our forces face a high-enough threat, on a consistent-enough basis, that they require the full 360-degree thoracic protection that the Dragon Skin body armor offers," said Captain Regen Wilson, spokesman for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.

The body armor was ordered for Office of Special Investigations troops, but Regen declined to say how many vests had been ordered or how much the contract was worth.

Army officials had said previously that the Air Force recalled the vests after they had failed tests.

The armor stopped the ''level three-plus" ammunition rounds for which it is rated. The armor did not do as well when more lethal ammunition was used -- level four rounds the armor had not been rated to stop.

Neal said there were problems with the ceramic discs used in the vests. An earlier batch of the armor with different discs had stopped the higher-powered shots, he said.

According to Neal and the Air Force memo, the company voluntarily decided to replace the ceramic discs. Wilson said the delivery of the new vests will be completed shortly.

Army officials said last month that they had banned the use of Dragon Skin and other armor not issued by the military, because of concerns about reports that soldiers' families were raising money to buy commercial armor, which is untested or viewed as inadequate.

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