May 13, 2012: STRATEGY PAGE
There is a rebellion brewing in the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. It's all about the protective vest. This lifesaving bit of equipment has saved thousands of lives in the last two decades, but has, because of political grandstanding and media distortions, become too heavy and restrictive. The troops want lighter body armor, even if it does increase vulnerability to bullets. Marine and army experts point out that the drive (created mainly by politicians and the media) for "better" body armor resulted in heavier and more restrictive (to battlefield mobility) models. This has more than doubled the minimum weight you could carry into combat.
Until the 1980s, you could strip down (for actual fighting) to your helmet, weapon (assault rifle and knife), ammo (hanging from webbing on your chest, along with grenades), canteen and first aid kit on your belt, and your combat uniform. Total load was 13-14 kg (about 30 pounds). You could move freely and quickly like this, and you quickly found that speed and agility was a lifesaver in combat. But now the minimum load carried is twice as much (27 kg) and, worse yet, more restrictive.
While troops complained about the new protective vests, they valued it in combat. The current generation of vests will stop rifle bullets, a first in the history of warfare. And this was after nearly a century of trying to develop protective vests that were worth the hassle of wearing. It wasn't until the 1980s that it was possible to make truly bullet proof vests using metallic inserts. But the inserts were heavy and so were the vests (about 11.3 kg/25 pounds). Great for SWAT teams, but not much use for the infantry. But in the 1990s, additional research produced lighter bullet proof ceramic materials. By 1999, the U.S. Army began distributing a 7.3 kg (16 pound) "Interceptor" vest that provided fragment and bullet protection. This, plus the 1.5 kg (3.3 pound) Kevlar helmet (available since the 1980s), gave the infantry the best combination of protection and mobility. And just in time.
Since the end of the Cold War more of the situations U.S. infantry find themselves in involve lightly armed irregulars who rely more on bullets than bombs. The bullet proof vest eliminates most of the damage done by the 30 percent of wounds that occur in the trunk (of which about 40 percent tend to be fatal without a vest). The Kevlar helmet is also virtually bulletproof but it doesn't cover all of the head (the face and part of the neck is still exposed). Even so, the reduction in deaths is significant. Some 15-20 percent of all wounds are in the head and about 45 percent of them are fatal without a helmet. The Kevlar helmet reduces the deaths by at least half and reduces many wounds to the status of bumps, sprains, and headaches. Half the wounds occur in the arms and legs, but only 5-10 percent of these are fatal and that won't change any time soon. Thus since Vietnam, improved body armor has reduced casualties by more than half. The protective vests used in Vietnam and late in the Korean War reduced casualties by about 25 percent since World War II, so the risk of getting killed or wounded has been cut in half since World War II because of improved body armor. Much better medical care (especially rapid evacuation of casualties by helicopter) has helped change the ratio of dead to wounded from 1:3 during World War II to 1:5 today.
The Interceptor vest was an improvement in other ways. It was easier to wear and was cooler in hot climates because you could more easily adjust it to let some air circulate. You could also hang gear from the vest, making it more a piece of clothing. It's still hot to wear the vest in hot weather but if you're expecting a firefight, it's easier to make the decision to wear the vest. You know it will stop bullets. U.S. troops who have fought in Afghanistan and been hit with rifle bullets that would have penetrated earlier vests are already spreading the word throughout the ground combat community. All you have to do is exercise in such a way that you are better able to carry the weight and still be mobile.
But as new, and heavier vests were introduced the troops often found themselves with protection, and weight, they did not need. For example, the latest vests will protect you from a hit high-powered rifle fired a close range. That is rare in combat. The latest vests will also protect you from multiple high-powered machine-gun bullet hits. Again, that's rare and an increasing number of soldiers and marines are willing to trade that for less weight and more mobility.
The army tried to solve the problem by instituting new training methods that emphasized building muscle and the ability to be agile under all that weight. The new exercises helped somewhat, but moving vigorously with all that weight has led to more musculoskeletal problems, many of them with long term consequences.
The enemy has also adapted, knowing that the more heavily encumbered Americans were not as agile or as fast and that could be exploited. The frustration of being slower than your foe often led U.S. troops to exertions that brought on musculoskeletal injuries. The new body armor may protect from bullets and shell fragments but it does nothing for over exuberant troops.
So the soldiers and marines are getting louder in their demands for relief from protection they don't need and restrictive protective vests that can get them killed.