By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 12, 2006
The Army announced yesterday that it will soon start producing 230,000 sets of side armor plates and field them over the year to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, after a recently disclosed Pentagon study indicated that such plates could have helped prevent scores of troop deaths since 2003.
The Marine Corps has delivered 9,000 sets of the plates to Iraq, a number that will rise to about 30,000 by April, officials said yesterday. Each set of plates, together with a carrier and soft armor, costs about $450 and weighs about seven pounds, the officials said.
Army and Marine generals in charge of developing and buying equipment defended the pace at which they were getting the new side armor to troops, after a closed-door briefing yesterday on the matter on Capitol Hill. The generals briefed the Senate Armed Services Committee after lawmakers voiced concern over a classified Pentagon forensic study disclosed last week that for the first time linked gaps in upper torso protection to troop fatalities.
The scrutiny of body armor is the latest instance in which Congress has pressured the Pentagon to accelerate the distribution of protective equipment to U.S. troops -- from "uparmored" Humvees and trucks to bulletproof vests. More than 2,200 American troops have died in Iraq since March 2003, 1,741 of them in combat, according to Pentagon figures as of yesterday.
The forensic study of 401 Marines who died in combat in Iraq from March 2003 to June 2005 showed that 21 died primarily from injuries to the side of their torsos. The study, completed in August 2005 by the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner, concluded that those Marines might have benefited from improved protection, such as that offered by the side plates. The findings, if applied to all U.S. combat casualties, suggest that scores of deaths might have been prevented if the new side plates had been worn.
The Marine Corps finalized contracts for the production of the side plates in mid-September and production began six weeks later, with distribution starting in November, said Col. Shawn Reinwald, director for combat equipment at the Marine Corps Systems Command in Quantico, Va. The Marine Corps commandant decided on the need for side plates in June, he said.
The Army also identified a requirement for the side plates in the past year, when Army truck drivers running convoys in Iraq asked for them, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sorenson, the Army's acquisition chief, told reporters. The Army took a design created by a commander in Iraq, minimized the plates' weight and this week determined the optimal size, according to Maj. Gen. Stephen M. Speakes, director of force development for the Army. "It's a great success," Speakes said.
The generals said the side plates are the most recent in a series of body armor upgrades that have improved the likelihood of survival for U.S. troops. But they stressed that the added armor has drawbacks because it can limit troops' mobility and raise body temperature -- a major consideration, given the 130-degree heat in which forces are fighting.
"We don't want a medieval knight. We are not going to be hoisted onto a horse," Speakes said. "All of this is a very difficult trade-off. How much is adequate?"
As a result, the new armor will be supplied to all troops, but commanders will decide case by case whether the mission requires them to wear it, Army and Marine officials said.