Sunday, August 14, 2005

Struggling to Get Soldiers Updated Armor

“For the second time since the Iraq war began, the Pentagon is struggling to replace body armor that is failing to protect American troops from the most lethal attacks by insurgents.

Workers assembled body armor made of ceramic plates at ArmorWorks in Tempe, Ariz. Specially treated plates give troops extra protection.

The ceramic plates in vests worn by most personnel cannot withstand certain munitions the insurgents use. But more than a year after military officials initiated an effort to replace the armor with thicker, more resistant plates, tens of thousands of soldiers are still without the stronger protection because of a string of delays in the Pentagon's procurement system.

The effort to replace the armor began in May 2004, just months after the Pentagon finished supplying troops with the original plates - a process also plagued by delays. The officials disclosed the new armor effort Wednesday after questioning by The New York Times, and acknowledged that it would take several more months or longer to complete.

Citing security concerns, the officials declined to say exactly how many more of the stronger plates were needed, or how much armor had already been shipped to Iraq.

"We are working as fast as we can to complete it as soon as we can," Maj. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sorenson, the Army's deputy for acquisition and systems management, said Wednesday in an interview at the Pentagon.

While much of the focus on casualties in Iraq has been on soldiers killed by explosive devices aimed at vehicles, body armor remains critical to the military's goals in Iraq. Gunfire has killed at least 325 troops, about half the number killed by bombs, according to the Pentagon.

Among the problems contributing to the delays in getting the stronger body armor, the Pentagon is relying on a cottage industry of small armor makers with limited production capacity. In addition, each company must independently come up with its own design for the plates, which then undergo military testing. Just four vendors have begun making the enhanced armor, according to military and industry officials. Two more companies are expected to receive contracts by next month, while 20 or more others have plates that are still being tested.…”

…Body armor arose as an issue in Iraq shortly after the invasion in March 2003, when insurgents began attacking American troops who had been given only vests and not bullet-resistant plates. The Army had planned to give the plates only to frontline soldiers. Officials now concede that they underestimated the insurgency's strength and commitment to fighting a war in which there are no back lines.

The ensuing scramble to produce more plates was marred by a series of missteps in which the Pentagon gave one contract to a former Army researcher who had never mass-produced anything. He was allowed to struggle with production for a year before he gave up. An outdated delivery plan slowed the arrival of plates that were made. In all, the war was 10 months old before every soldier in Iraq had plates in late January 2004.

Four months later, the Pentagon quietly issued a solicitation for the enhanced plates that would resist stronger attacks. At the same time, it worked to make improvements to the vests, including adding shoulder and side protection.

Pentagon officials said they had been hampered in their efforts by the need to make the armor as light as possible.

"You can trace this back to the early centuries ago when they started wearing body armor to the point they couldn't get on the horse," General Sorenson said. "We are doing the same sort of thing. You can only put so much armor on a soldier to the point where they can't move."

The new enhanced SAPI plates weigh about one pound more than the original plates, bringing the total body armor system with vest to about 18 pounds, military officials said.

Among the first soldiers to use the stronger armor were the military's special forces, who are known to cut the handles off their toothbrushes to reduce the weight of their packs.

Shortly after the Iraq war began, insurgents began attacking American soldiers engaged in stationary tasks like directing traffic or less arduous combat operations.…

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/14/international/middleeast/14armor.html?ei=5094&en=c79db06067b55db0&hp=&ex=1124078400&partner=homepage&pagewanted=all
con·cept: Struggling to Get Soldiers Updated Armor