The Dragon Skin weighs too much. And it may not work.

A well trained man can carry 70-80 pounds worth of armor, weapons, and equipment for several hours of combat. The weight slows them down and exhausts them over time. The number never changed, whether we look at the Ancient Greeks and Romans, or modern American soldiers.

Historically, the first thing infantry do is drop excess armor. Most infantry wear nothing but a cuirass (breastplates) and helmet for a reason.

Current body armor works because it is a “soft” armor. Bullets can pierce “hard” metal armor very easily. The Ceramic Plate is designed to blunt and deflect a high-velocity rifle bullet, so the the ‘soft’ Kevlar can absorb it.

The ancients tried to mix both types for the same reasons. Soft armors, like hardened linen and leathers would stop arrows better than a hard iron breastplate. Linen though, wouldn’t do much against a spear thrust.

The real trick was to balance protection from different threats without exceeding the 70 pound total weight limit or reducing mobility. Armorers must make ruthless tradeoffs. They must balance weight, protection, visibility, mobility, and speed. Each is vitally important. If you reduce mobility for more protection, then more men die. Armorers must come up with the best balance possible.

The Newsmedia and Democratic Party is pushing a very heavy type of armor called the Dragon Skin. Senator Clinton and other Democrats are investigating (?) Army tests and will try to make a political issue out of body-armor to “save” soldiers’ lives. They can only do so through emotional appeals while denying an scientific or engineering tradeoffs.

Journalists and Democrats want Dragon Skin to replace the lighter Interceptor bodyarmor. Both models work the same way – Kevlar plus ceramic plates. Both armor can stop rifle rounds like 7.62 AK round, but there are fail-rates and the more shots the armor takes, the weaker it gets.

Interceptors use four ceramic plates made of alumina. Each plate weighs about 4 pounds each (front, back and sides), coupled with the weight of the Kevlar vest. It’s modular, so the troops add only the front/back plates and save 8 pounds. The total weight is about 28 pounds, depending on vest size.

The Dragon-Skin concept is more like Chain-Mail. Instead of solid plates like the Interceptor, it uses lots of discs – small ceramic plates. It looks interesting from a design perspective, but the problem is simple: It weighs a ton.

Infantry don’t even want to wear the current armor for hours of patrol and combat in the 110 degree Iraqi heat. Politicians and journalists want them to wear armor that is 20 pounds heavier than the current armor. Either they expect soldiers to carry 90pounds into battle, or they want soldiers to drop excess equipment, like medical kits, water, ammo, night-vision goggles.

Dragon-Skin will not be usable if it weighs one pound more than the Interceptor.

Strategy Page notes the obvious.

While politicians and pundits make a lot of noise about getting the troops better body armor, the troops are asking for less, or at least lighter and less bulky, armor. Anyone who has been in combat will tell you that survival depends, first of all, on speed and mobility. Body armor helps when you do get hit, but the latest body armor often slows troops down and makes them vulnerable to hits in unarmored areas (the face, and limbs). Troops traveling in vehicles find the body armor a major obstacle to getting out quickly. This can be a matter of life and death. Another problem is fatigue and heat. The heavy armor is cumbersome, and wearing it in action wears you out more quickly.

The Dragon-Skin may not be effective.

One American TV network broadcast material that seemed to indicate that Dragon Skin performed better than the current Interceptor. However, the Army has now released the results of other tests, done by an independent lab in 2006, which showed that Dragon Skin armor failed in a number of areas, including those concerning high temperatures, often after one or two shots. This is not a good thing in combat. Furthermore, the ceramic tiles have proven to be fragile – far more so than the Interceptor’s ceramic plates.

The Chain-mail concept is interesting, but it works better with metal. Ceramic is a funny material. If the ceramic discs lose structural integrity, then what’s the point?