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Military Working to Ensure Best Body Armor Possible

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 2, 2006 – The Army and Marine Corps are pulling out all the stops to ensure deployed troops have the best body armor possible, including ceramic side plates to protect their torsos, leaders from both services told members of the House Armed Services Committee yesterday.

The leaders gave solid endorsement to the protective vests already worn by all deployed forces, but said they continue to seek out improvements that provide even more protection without adding weight and bulkiness.

"Force protection is the Army's No. 1 priority," Maj. Gen. Stephen Speakes, the Army's force development director, told the Tactical Air and Land Forces and Readiness subcommittees. "The equipment we have today is better than what we had yesterday, and what we'll have tomorrow will be better than what we're fielding to today's soldiers."

Marine Maj. Gen. William Catto, head of Marine Corps Systems Command, joined Speakes in describing the evolutionary process that continues to upgrade the body armor deployed troops wear.

This evolution in force protection is "absolutely essential," Speakes said. "We face an evolving enemy who is absolutely committed to taking on us and any vulnerability he can identify."

All deployed Marines have been equipped with the outer tactical vest and small-arms protective inserts, referred to as SAPI plates, since the beginning of operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq, Catto told the committee members. In March 2004, Marines returned to Iraq with added body armor components, including body extremity armor, lightweight helmets and ballistic goggles, he said.

At the beginning of the war, the Army had 32,000 sets of body armor, Speakes said. Today, it has fielded more than 720,000 sets, not only to all its deployed troops, but for those in training.

Improvements to the Interceptor body armor system that soldiers wear include the deltoid auxiliary protector that shields the shoulders and side SAPI plates that the Army plans to field beginning this month, he said.

While these enhancements provide increased protection, the leaders acknowledged that they add more weight to troops already laden with heavy equipment and gear. "We have gone from about 16 pounds of body armor per soldier to potentially as much as 31 pounds per soldier," Speakes said.

He advocated a "menu of choices" in body armor that unit leaders can pick from, depending on the weather, their mission and the operating environment.

No single solution will answer the services' body armor requirements in all situations, Speakes said. "It's our challenge to provide the best mix for the complex mission environments that our soldiers operate in," he said.

The generals reported steady improvements in vehicle protection as well.

"Our goal has been to consistently upgrade the armor support for all of our vehicles and make sure that 100 percent of our vehicles that go outside of the forward operating bases have been armored," Catto said. "And they are today."

The Army holds to the same standards for its vehicles in the theater.

But force protection goes beyond the material on a servicemembers' back or the vehicle he or she rides in, Speakes told the committee. "Force protection is more than simply equipment," he said.

It also includes realistic training and evolving techniques, tactics and procedures. "It's a total strategy and a total approach," he said.

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Maj. Gen. William Catto, USMC

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