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Copley News Service February 2, 2006

Ceramic side plates complete the well-armored soldier's combat shield

By Gordon Smith

COSTA MESA – Only days after receiving a $70 million order from the Army, Ceradyne of Costa Mesa this week sent its first shipment of ceramic armor side plates to U.S troops in Iraq.

The side plates, which augment chest and back plates worn by many soldiers and Marines in Iraq, were ordered by the Army on a no-bid, “urgent and compelling” basis after a report surfaced in early January that Americans were dying from side torso wounds.

Those reports led to criticism on Capitol Hill that the Army and the Bush administration had not done everything possible to safeguard U.S. troops.

The latest criticism came from Gov. Timothy M. Kaine of Virginia, who provided the Democrat response to President Bush's State of the Union address Tuesday night.

“We now know that our troops in Iraq were not given the best body armor or the best intelligence,” Kaine said, though some military experts dispute that charge.

For Ceradyne, an aerospace survivor from the 1960s, the latest order from the Army was a boost to a rapidly expanding business.

The company has produced ceramic armor since the mid-1980s, but its fortunes have risen dramatically in recent years with the increasing use of ceramic body armor by U.S. troops.

Ceradyne already was the Army's largest supplier of ceramic armor and had shipped about 65 percent of the armor produced by several companies under a 2-year-old, $461 million contract, said Michael E. Hoffman of Friedman Billings Ramsey Group, a Web-based investment bank.

Ceradyne also makes ceramic body armor for the Marine Corps.

Larger versions of the body plates help protect helicopter gunships from .50 caliber machine-gun fire and will soon shield the Navy's air-cushioned landing craft used by the Marine Corps.

Joel Moskowitz, the founder and chief executive of Ceradyne, said it took private industry and the military nearly 30 years to develop ceramic body plates capable of stopping high-powered rifle bullets. Still, the armor is manufactured by a few specialized firms.

“What really made our company is our ability to produce,” Moskowitz said. “We're shipping 32,000 to 50,000 (plates) a month, and they are held to a very high standard.”

Only days after receiving the recent order from the Army, some of the side plates had been cast and were being cleaned by employees at one of Ceradyne's production plants here.

Before shipment, samples are typically scrutinized by Department of Defense inspectors who roam through Ceradyne's facilities.

The 2005 report that became public last month concluded that 42 percent of the lethal torso wounds sustained by Marines in Iraq could have been prevented by better side-armor protection. In addition, the Army reportedly had learned that insurgents were targeting areas not covered by the chest and back plates that most soldiers already wear.

Despite the criticism that followed the report, several military experts said the Army's earlier studies about the need for the side plates were inconclusive.

“The Army did not have clear evidence that equipping its troops in the field would be beneficial to them,” said Loren Thompson, a military expert at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va. “The issue was less the weight than the notion that if you're surrounded by rigid plates, you might not be able to move.”

The use of body armor has skyrocketed with the deployments of U.S. troops to Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years, but many soldiers complain about its weight and bulk. A full suit, including side plates, weighs about 25 pounds and inhibits mobility, they say.

“If you look at the guys wearing this armor, they look like turtles,” said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Web site that tracks military issues.

“People used to laugh about how medieval knights in jousting armor looked pretty immobilized. But that's where we're heading,” Pike said.

“But if the choice is wearing (ceramic body armor) or coming home in a Glad bag, I'd rather not come home in a Glad bag.”

Austin Bay, an author and syndicated columnist who spent five months in Iraq in 2004 as a colonel in the U.S. Army reserve, advised troops to wear body armor whenever they were away from camp, even though it added to the more than 50 pounds of ammunition and other gear they typically carried.

With the side plates “you add (even more) weight, and you're asking these guys to run and hide and crawl, and do it when it's 125 degrees. There's a trade-off with it, and the trade-off is mobility and sustainability and endurance,” Bay said.

“Will it save lives?” he asked. “Of course.”

Thompson agreed.

“I would venture to say ceramic armor has saved hundreds of soldiers' lives (in Iraq), for two reasons,” he said. “It has absorbed the shock of bullets and prevented them from penetrating into the body. It also stops all manner of other flying debris, including shrapnel and glass. One of the most lethal things in the environment of a suicide bombing is flying glass.”

Moskowitz said ceramic armor has been thoroughly tested by troops to see if it limits their agility or ability to shoot. “I don't consider it any hindrance at all to mobility,” he said, “and of course it increases the survivability.”

Ceradyne, which was founded as a research company in 1967 and soon began working on ceramic nose cones for missiles, also makes high-tech ceramic orthodontic wear and diesel-engine parts, among other products.

But it's been the demand for ceramic body armor that has powered the company's steep rise in gross sales, from $61.2 million in 2002 to a company-estimated $360 million in 2005.

Moskowitz said that figure should climb by $100 million this year.

The body armor is made from boron carbide, a substance that's lighter than aluminum yet is one of the hardest materials known. The inch-thick plates are kiln-fired at 4,000 degrees, then bonded to a thick layer of Kevlar-like fiber that is similar to fiberglass but much stronger.

“Without the backing, we don't stop bullets,” Moskowitz said.

The large chest and back plates fit into pockets of the “tactical vests” worn by soldiers. The smaller side plates slip into pouches that can be strapped to the sides of the vests.

In a prepared statement, the Army said it plans to equip all soldiers “in harm's way” with the side plates and will look for other suppliers to supplement Ceradyne's production in order to furnish the plates as quickly as possible.

Moskowitz isn't worried about the competition. For one thing, through a German subsidiary that it purchased in 2004, Ceradyne supplies most of the powdered boron carbide used by its competitors to make ceramic armor.

(The company also acquired Quest Technology of San Diego that same year.)

For another, although ceramic armor already accounts for about 60 percent of Ceradyne's sales, Moskowitz sees growth ahead for armor sales to the U.S. military as well as military agencies in Europe. The company also has identified potentially lucrative industrial uses for its high-tech ceramics, and is working on ceramic armor for vehicles, Moskowitz said.

“People say to me, 'Aren't you afraid that without a war in Iraq, there won't be the business?' I say, 'Tell me about a congressman or woman who doesn't want to vote for spending $1,100 for a front and back plate (to protect soldiers), and I'll show you a congressman or woman who doesn't want to get re-elected,'” he said.


Copyright 2006, Copley News Service