April 18, 2009 Lightweight Armor Is Slow to Reach Troops By THOM SHANKER WASHINGTON — The Army has promised to lighten the soldier’s load, and nowhere more urgently than in eastern Afghanistan, where the unforgiving terrain tests the stamina of troops whose weapons, body armor, rucksacks and survival gear can weigh 130 pounds. But an experiment to shave up to 20 pounds off a soldier’s burden — much of it by reducing the bulletproof plates that protect the chest and back — has stalled, leaving $3 million in new, lightweight equipment sitting in a warehouse in the United States instead of being sent to the war zone where it was to have been tried out by a battalion-size group of 500 soldiers. The delay offers a new window into how Army rules have slowed the deployment of specialized gear that small units are seeking for harsh combat environments. The new lightweight bulletproof plates, part of what is known as a Modular Body Armor Vest, are already in use by the military’s Special Operations Command, which includes the Army’s elite light-infantry troops, the Rangers. A team of Army experts went to eastern Afghanistan in early March expecting to begin trial runs of the gear for regular Army soldiers, including a company assigned to the remote Korangal Valley, a harsh and primitive area of eastern Afghanistan where the insurgency has proved especially resilient, and where soldiers regularly set off on multiple-day patrols that require them to hike up and down steep hills and valleys. But the assessment team was ordered back to the United States late last month when its experiment was put off. The delays in the assessment were reported first by Army Times. According to Army officials familiar with the effort, senior Army leaders ordered further reviews of the lighter bulletproof plates to guarantee that soldiers would not be put at risk wearing them during the combat field tests; the leaders also wanted to expand the goals for the assessment. The officials who discussed the stalled study did so on ground rules of anonymity because of the senior-level review of the matter still under way. The lighter set of plates and vest could reduce the load of conventional troops by about 20 pounds compared with the current Army-issue Improved Outer Tactical Vest. The Special Operations Command prides itself on rapidly equipping its units with the latest in weaponry, body armor and war-fighting technology, and many of its innovations subsequently have been adopted by conventional forces. But some of its highly specialized gear carries with it a greater risk for the user, one that Special Operations commanders say is mitigated by the elite level of training given their forces. All involved in the debate agree that the lighter plates and vest do not cover as much of the torso as the current Army body armor. But advocates of the lighter protection say that giving a soldier greater mobility contributes to survivability, and that the greatest threat to troops in eastern Afghanistan is from bullets, while the heavier vests were designed also to guard against shrapnel from roadside bombs. Army officials say that the assessment, headed by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in conjunction with the Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group, will resume in about a month, and that the focus will be on the impact of the total soldier’s load and not on analyzing particular pieces of equipment, like the body armor alone. “To preserve the validity of this assessment and evaluation on soldier performance, the Army decided to equip the unit with all types of lighter equipment simultaneously rather than in a piecemeal fashion,” an Army spokesman said. The assessment is expected to resume “in the next month, pending a final decision from senior Army leadership,” the spokesman said. Advocates of a more cautious assessment schedule cite the importance of getting the study right, saying it will guide decisions on equipping the entire force both to meet the challenges of combat in Afghanistan — where thousands of additional troops are being sent this year — and to lessen the physical strain that can lead to long-term injury. But other officials counter that time has been wasted, and that the lighter gear is only one option to commanders whose troops are going out on patrol, because heavier body armor would remain at each base for use when more coverage of the upper body was needed. Critics say the delays in testing the lighter body armor are another sign of Army inflexibility, even after years of efforts by the service to speed up its procurement process. The Army was also late to recognize the dangers posed by a reliance on soft-skinned Humvees for troops in Iraq, and then was slow in buying and building better-armored troop transports. The Army has been driven to examine how to lighten the soldier’s load after years of adding heavier armor, night-vision goggles, rifle scopes, knives, water and food. A soldier on patrol carries, on average, 60 pounds of equipment, but in places like Afghanistan, where the terrain requires prolonged missions away from an operating base, the load can be doubled by the need for shelter, extra food, ammunition and other gear.