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Army Getting New Side Armor Next Month

By Pamela Hess, UPI Pentagon Correspondent
Washington (UPI) Jan 18, 2006
The Army next month will start shipping new body armor to protect the side of soldier's torsos from bullets and shrapnel, the Army secretary said Wednesday.

The new body armor addition weighs five pounds, adding to the already heavy burden American soldiers wear in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The number of soldiers who die from bullets or wounds to their unprotected sides is small, said Army Secretary Francis Harvey at a Pentagon press conference, but as far as he is concerned the additional armor should be mandatory kit.

"What we're trying to do here is balance the mobility with protection," said Harvey. "You can have protection, but if you can't move, you may get shot in the leg or something because you can't move that fast. So it's a compromise."

It will be up to U.S. Central Command and likely the individual commanders to determine which soldiers will wear the additional armor. They will take into account the nature of the threat, a soldier's duties -- riding in a turret or standing at a static guard post -- and the need for mobility in determining whether to add the armor.

"Even though the evidence shows that this is not a major threat, we have an adaptive enemy that we're trying to get ahead of, so we are going to be fielding, starting next month, side plates," Harvey said.

Soldiers in Iraq already complain about the weight they carry in the field, particularly in the hot summer months. The average soldier starts with at least 50 extra pounds, from armor and weapons and ammunition, and it goes up from there.

"The current stuff weighs a lot and impedes our mobility a lot," stated a soldier serving in Iraq on Wednesday. "In many ways, the best defense is a good offense -- if you're shooting back accurately and moving quickly, you can stay alive better than if you had more armor. I feel fairly confident in the Interceptor body armor we have, the armored (Humvees) we have, and everything else ...(But) you can't turn us into walking knights encased in Kevlar or steel. And even if you did, the insurgents would still find the chink in our armor, or build an (improvised explosive device) big enough to make all that armor irrelevant."

The soldier said his colleagues in Iraq were upset both about the vulnerability of their armor coverage as well as the New York Times article last week that highlighted it.

That story quoted a Marine medical study from August 2005 that said nearly one-quarter of the 89 fatalities among Marines that were included in the investigation could have been prevented had the Marine Corps issued side armor plates. About 9,000 have been fielded to Marines since then, according to the Corps.

Of the 89 fatalities considered in the Marine study, 60 percent were from small arms fire. Another 38 percent were the result of blast injuries.

According to Harvey, the issue is much different in the Army. Only one soldier has died from a gunshot wound to the side of the torso. Just five percent have died from small arms fire. About 90 percent of the wounded and dead are the result of blast injuries from improvised explosive devices, land mines and rocket-propelled grenades. Tracing those injuries back to the side area is difficult, as those who die from shrapnel blasts tend to have multiple wounds; identifying the fatal entry point is often impossible.

According to Pentagon statistics current as of Jan. 7, of the 19,550 dead and wounded in Iraq 10,373 were caused by explosive devices, 2,135 by rocket or mortar explosions, and 1,678 were by gunshot wounds.

The Army and Marine Corps operate in different ways and places in Iraq which also affects the kinds of casualties they endure. The Army tends to be a heavier force, employing tanks and other armored vehicles more often than the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps is at its heart a light infantry force, and units conduct dismounted or foot patrols without the benefit of armored vehicles with some frequency. The Marine Corps is also operating in the universally dangerous Anbar province, the heart of the insurgency. Army units are spread among both dangerous insurgent footholds - particularly Mosul and Baghdad -- and relatively peaceful areas.

Harvey disputed the notion that the Army has been slow to respond to the Marine Corps' findings.

"We didn't wait. The request came in, in September. It has to be designed, tested and demonstrated. And we did that in a matter of three months," Harvey said.

Thus far the Army has issued some 700,000 sets of body armor to the field. That number includes upgraded ceramic plates that fit into vests. The initial plates were vulnerable to armor-piercing bullets. According to an Army spokesman, the Army was already at work on a new plate when that vulnerability began to be exploited in Iraq.

Source: United Press International

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