View Full Version : Troops’ reactions mixed on new side armor plan

01-17-06, 12:33 PM
January 23, 2006
Troops’ reactions mixed on new side armor plan
By Christian Lowe
Times staff writer

HIT, Iraq — Opinions on the addition of side armor plates to protective armor are diverse among Marines here: While most concede the extra weight of more bullet-resistant plating could prove a hindrance during foot-mobile operations, many admit they’d welcome the added coverage.

“I’d wear everything I could get in an urban environment, because you could get fire from any direction,” said Sgt. Adam Marshall, 26, of Tiffin, Ohio, with 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines.

“But in a place like Afghanistan, where you have to hump a lot, I’d probably only wear plate holders. … And in a jungle environment, having all that armor on would wear you out,” he said.

Of the two battalions visited by Marine Corps Times reporters in Iraq — 1/2 and 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, based in Ramadi — there was little evidence that any accessories to protect the side of a Marine’s torso or arms had been fielded.

None of the infantrymen interviewed had even heard of the side plates, and others complained that requests for soft shoulder armor had not been fulfilled.

Soldiers with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, based in Ramadi, were equipped with the shoulder protection attached to their vests. It is unclear whether side Small Arms Protective Inserts were part of the ensemble.

Some Marines said the side plates and the shoulder protection would be most helpful for the turret gunner of a Humvee, since his body is exposed to small-arms fire and shrapnel from roadside bombs the most, and he rarely has to dismount from the vehicle, making the cumbersome additions less of an issue.

Marines in Iraq universally applaud the body armor’s lifesaving capability, though several complained of the added weight imposed by the new Enhanced SAPIs, beefed-up versions of the older SAPIs. The added weight of the extra-strength plates is proving tough to haul, most admit.

However, almost every Marine who’s been to Iraq could recount a survival story of point-blank rifle hits or shrapnel sprays from bombs that, because of the vest and the ceramic plates it holds, resulted in little more than a short visit to the aid station for their fellow Marines.

“These vests definitely save lives,” said Lance Cpl. James Fairbanks, 20, of Lakeland, Fla., an infantryman with 1/2.

The increasing number and strength of up-armored Humvees in Iraq has contributed to Marines’ and soldiers’ protection while patrolling the insurgent-infested streets of some of Iraq’s most volatile cities, adding another shell around the already armor-clad grunt. This increase in vehicle armor has contributed to a reduction in the need for the side SAPIs or shoulder armor, some Marines said.

“During my first deployment here, I had to wrap the crotch protector on my left arm when I was driving,” said Cpl. Paul Stewart, 23, of Leominster, Mass., who was deployed to Fallujah with 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, during the first major push through the city in April 2004.

“That’s when we were going around in Humvees with that first armor kit,” he added, referring to the cold-rolled steel doors Marines retrofitted to their existing Humvee fleet while the service waited for the manufacture of more protective up-armor kits.

Now, every Marine vehicle patrol that leaves a combat outpost in Iraq sits behind a thickly plated, factory-built cabin of armor and ballistic glass, Marine officials claim.

Despite praise for the current body armor system and its bullet-resistant SAPI plates, some Marines say they would rather go without the added protection of side SAPIs and shoulder panels.

“Those things will really cut down on your mobility,” said Lance Cpl. Landon Mercer, 20, of Phoenix, N.Y., an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon machine gunner with 1/2. “If I could, I’d go out there with just a load-bearing vest.”

01-17-06, 12:37 PM
January 23, 2006
On the safe side
New plates help protect leathernecks from all angles
By David Brown and John Hoellwarth
Times staff writers

The Corps is rushing new body armor plates to Iraq, aimed at protecting the sides of Marines’ torsos between the existing front and back armor plates.

As of early January, roughly 9,200 sets of the side plates were in the war zone. By April, every Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan should have them.

But the new protection comes at some cost.

Adding side plates will add an extra seven pounds to each Marine’s combat load. Some fear this will slow down Marines and hurt their mobility.

The Corps developed the new plates after the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology studied 93 Marine fatalities from the war in Iraq and concluded that 80 percent of those might have survived if additional armor had been available.

The study did not take into account the weight and impracticality of adding armor to all those areas.

The study was commissioned by Marine Corps Systems Command in December 2004, and work began on the new plates as soon as preliminary data was available the following March.

The report found that of the 74 deaths seen as preventable by more vest plating, 21 of them — or 23 percent — “might have benefited” from added protection to the sides of the torso.

At the time of the study, those areas were protected by “soft armor,” which protects against shrapnel and other bullet hits but doesn’t offer the same level of protection provided by the ceramic Small Arms Protective Insert, or SAPI, plates.

SysCom officials said the study was just one of the factors they used when deciding to field the plates.

Last June, members of 2nd Force Reconnaissance Company also contacted SysCom requesting side plates.

And the commandant of the Marine Corps identified the need for side plates on his own after visiting troops in Iraq.

Col. Shawn Reinwald, director of combat equipment and support systems for SysCom, said the confluence of all these factors led to the development of side armor.

He said they did it because his command is a steward of the taxpayer’s money and that it has a duty to ensure it spends money wisely.

“That’s why we worked with the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, to say, ‘Hey, where can we gain effectiveness? How can we improve our body armor? How should we attack this?’” Reinwald said.

“We said, ‘We know we’re taking casualties, we know we have Marine [deaths]. How are they happening, where are they happening?’” he said.

Half of the 28,800 sets of plates that will head to war will be available in large pouches, half in smaller ones. Both pouches are designed to buckle into the outer tactical vest’s mesh straps, which Marines already use to hold pouches and other gear.

The larger pouch is designed for larger Marines and will be able to hold either the new side SAPI plate or the extra-small SAPI plate that smaller Marines typically use for their chests or backs. Although it sounds odd, the extra-small SAPI is actually larger than the new side plates.

The small pouch will hold only the new side SAPI, but it’s designed to slide horizontally or vertically into the pouch.

According to Daniel Fitzgerald, program manager for infantry combat equipment at SysCom, the side plates are the latest in the Corps’ “spiral development” of the vest, a process for adding accessories and improvements to existing equipment.

After Marines returned to Iraq in March 2004 in what many refer to as Operation Iraqi Freedom II, SysCom began fielding several improvements for Marines’ protection. Among them were ballistic goggles, shoulder protection made of soft armor, and leg protection.

By the time SysCom commissioned the lethality study in December 2004, the Iraqi insurgency had already proved stubborn, and officials wanted to find out if there were other ways to protect Marines.

Corps officials received preliminary findings in March of last year and received the request from 2nd Force Recon for side armor by June.

Force Recon Marines reported regularly taking fire from the side when encountering insurgents lurking in corners during room-to-room searches.

Upon receiving the request, SysCom located a stockpile of extra-small ballistic plates within the Defense Logistics Agency and developed a sleeve for the plate that could be snapped onto both sides of the current vest.

About 70 sets of prototype side plates were shipped to 2nd Force Recon in July, and the Corps began seeking manufacturers for a smaller, all-hands version of the plate.

By August, the full lethality study was finished, confirming the need for side protection. By September, SysCom had signed contracts with Ceradyne Inc. and Diamondback Tactical to manufacture the smaller plates and the two pouches.

Officials say the plates will remain in the war zone — departing units will hand them off to incoming units.

Weighty issue

So is it worth the weight? Officials at SysCom say they are well aware that the business of outfitting Marines for war is a delicate balance between providing maximum protection and ensuring the Marine isn’t carrying a load that may lead to reduced combat effectiveness or an increased risk of heat injuries.

The Marine Corps “is doing the absolute best it can” to provide better armor while balancing the demands of having equipment that’s both wearable and bearable, said Capt. Jeff Landis, a spokesman for SysCom.

Sgt. Jared McNerney, who is assigned to SysCom and visited Congress on Jan. 11 dressed in full combat gear, said he prefers not to wear a full set of armor in the war zone because of the weight and lack of mobility.

“If I put them on, I can barely extend my arms over my head,” McNerney said. “I need the most mobility possible to climb through windows and jump over walls.”

Fitzgerald said the side plates bring the standard combat load to between 97 and 103 pounds.

For some Marines, such as machine gunners, who must also carry extra ammunition, this load could be significantly heavier, he added.

And now the Corps is fielding new enhanced SAPIs, which provide greater ballistic stopping power, but are 30 percent heavier than the older SAPIs, worsening the weight problem.

Fitzgerald said that’s why the sides of the torso are the only new areas that are receiving ceramic plate inserts.

But, officials added, Marines are more willing to accept heavier plates.

“What you’ve seen now is that acceptance level has grown, [because] of emerging threats, to add more weight,” Landis said. “You’re always going to have that argument about mobility and weight. How much is too much?”

“It’s the operating forces’ call,” Fitzgerald said. “We just want to make sure the Marines have the protection they need.”

Despite concerns that the weight of Marines’ current combat load is already impractical, Reinwald said all the ballistic protection gear is modular, and that local commanders can require their Marines to add or remove any piece of equipment as the mission and environment require.

For instance, he said, the side SAPI is a lot more practical for a Marine conducting foot patrols in Fallujah, Iraq, than it would be for a Marine climbing up and down the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan. Commanders can pick and choose from the different sets depending on the mission.

SysCom under fire

The existence of the report, and the news that the Corps was developing side armor plates, came to light after a Jan. 6 story by the New York Times. The article referenced information first provided by “Soldiers for the Truth,” an advocacy Web site.

Newspapers, television networks and wire services immediately picked up the report, in what SysCom officials said was an unfair slam on their reaction to the needs from the battlefield.

Within days, Congress was calling for hearings with Army and Marine Corps leaders to understand what the lawmakers viewed as delays to the fielding of extra armor.

Generals from both services met with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Jan. 11. Military officials then emerged, saying protecting troops is a top priority, but weighing them down with so much body armor that they are practically unable to move is not the answer to the continued deaths and injuries among armor-wearing deployed forces.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, said he was satisfied that the services had the money and authority to get the necessary gear, adding that he understood the limitations.

“Everything that can be done is being done,” Warner said.

He said a fully armored service member could actually end up being more vulnerable than one with lighter armor and more freedom of movement.

“Nothing is more important to the Marine Corps than protection for our Marines,” said Maj. Gen. William Catto, commander of SysCom.

At a later briefing with reporters, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended the services and explained that no one can predict how much armor — both on vehicles and on people — will be needed at or near the beginning of a war.

He referred to the improvements to the outer tactical vests and the installation of heavy armor plates on Humvees in Iraq.

“Up-armored Humvees and the SAPI protection were designed before the war, and as we got into the war, the Congress of the United States provided the resources, and we have built literally beyond 700,000 flak jackets ... since the beginning of the war. There are 40,000-plus armored vehicles,” Pace said.

“So the fact that you are doing what you should be doing, prospectively looking at potential capacities and having those available, doesn’t mean that everything you have on the shelf, you should have a world supply right at the beginning of a conflict before you know that you’re going to need those particular things.

“So I would tell you the fact that we had the [side] armor, the fact that we had the up-armored vehicles, is an indication that we had people thinking about the right things.”

Reinwald said it’s also a matter of changing attitudes. During an interview in Quantico, he held up an outer tactical vest with plates installed and said so much weight would never have been accepted before the war on terrorism began.

“Had we come together with a body armor system a half-dozen years ago and said it’s going to weigh what this system weighs now, it would not have been accepted. It’s way too heavy,” Reinwald said.

“Now that we’ve actually met the enemy, and a specific enemy, and [know] the specific tactics that we need to confront that enemy, we found out that this, in fact, is the optimal technology we’ve got out there now.”

Fitzgerald and Reinwald also pointed out that the search isn’t over. Officials at SysCom continue to look for lighter armor that offers the same, or better, ballistic protection than the enhanced SAPIs.

“We bring in industry,” Fitzgerald said. “We say, ‘Here’s our issue, here’s our problem. Start looking for solutions.’ ”

Staff writers Rick Maze and Gordon Lubold contributed to this report.