More than half of the tens of thousands of body armor plates worn by special operations forces in the U.S. military are being recalled for replacement, Military Timeshas learned.
The equipment is manufactured by Ceradyne Defense, a company that has supplied the U.S. military for decades and shares similar technology with other armor plates used in the Defense Department’s inventory.
The technology failure has been the focus of months of analysis overseen by Special Operations Command, according to documents reviewed by Military Times.
A SOCOM spokesman acknowledged the problem in an email, saying a manufacturing defect was found “in a small percentage (of) ballistic armor plates issued to Special Operations Forces.”
“SOCOM implemented measures to test and if needed withdraw (affected) plates from operational inventories,” spokesman Kenneth McGraw wrote.
“To date, there has not (been) an impact on Special Operations missions or (any) injuries as a result of defective plates.”
McGraw said the defect has been found in less than 5% of the plates tested. He credited Ceradyne with identifying the root cause of the defect and taking action “that should correct” the problem
Dave Reed, president of North American Operations for Ceradyne, would not comment on the recall and referred questions to SOCOM.
Officials who oversee acquisition and upkeep of SOCOM’s personal protective equipment determined the SPEAR Generation III armor plates, as they’re known, “display a latent delamination defect,” according to an unclassified message sent in March to all members of SOCOM. The message was updated in October and obtained by Military Times.
When delamination occurs, the plates’ internal components separate, creating a void that compromises the ability to stop direct hits.
Ceradyne describes itself as a developer and manufacturer of ceramic components and systems for a wide range of uses. Defense products account for about 40% of its business. The 3M Co. has offered to buy Ceradyne for $860 million. Ceradyne’s shareholders are scheduled to vote on the deal Nov. 27.
According to documents posted on Ceradyne’s website and since removed, the defect seen in SPEAR Gen III plates is similar to problems previously identified in other plates built by Ceradyne for use by SOCOM.
The defect was uncovered during a government quality assurance lot test of the company’s swimmer’s plates. Officially called Tactical Stand Alone Gen III armor plates, they were part of the same $406 million contract SOCOM issued to Ceradyne Defense in January 2008.
The swimmer’s plates were recalled in 2011 after limited fielding. Testing showed internal components of the plates failed, rendering them ineffective. These results alerted government officials to a possible problem with the SPEAR Gen III plates, which use the same technology. .
Documents filed in late September with the Securities and Exchange Commission outline the trouble between Ceradyne Defense and SOCOM. Among other things, they detail several stop-work notices and point to a mixed reaction to Ceradyne’s plan to fix defective plates and the manufacturing process. SOCOM refused to buy any more swimmer’s plates, Ceradyne reported, but it allowed for future purchases of SPEAR Gen III plates.
In January, after the SPEAR Gen III plates were widely fielded, testing revealed plates that previously passed quality assurance tests during the manufacturing process were later failing without explanation.
Since the recall, SOCOM has agreed to allow Ceradyne Defense to resume production of the SPEAR Gen III plates remaining on its contract — about $17 million worth of equipment, according to a SOCOM source — using a revised manufacturing method the company says may reduce failure rate. These plates could be used to replace recalled plates from earlier lots.