Pentagon strives to upgrade troops' body armor

Improvements are slowed by scarcity of material


For the second time since the Iraq war began, the Pentagon is struggling to replace body armor that is failing to protect U.S. troops from the most lethal attacks by insurgents.

The ceramic plates in vests worn by most personnel cannot withstand certain munitions the insurgents use. But more than a year after military officials initiated an effort to replace the armor with more resistant - albeit heavier - plates, tens of thousands of soldiers are still without the stronger protection because of delays in the Pentagon's procurement system.

The effort to replace the armor began in May 2004, months after the Pentagon finished supplying troops with the original plates - a process also dogged by delays. The officials disclosed the new armor effort Wednesday after questioning by The New York Times and acknowledged that it would take several more months or longer to complete.

`As fast as we can'

Citing security concerns, the officials declined to say exactly how many more of the stronger plates were needed or how much armor had been shipped to Iraq.

"We are working as fast as we can to complete it as soon as we can," Maj. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sorenson, the Army's deputy for acquisition and systems management, said last week in an interview at the Pentagon.

While much of the focus on casualties in Iraq has been on soldiers killed by explosive devices aimed at vehicles, body armor remains critical. Gunfire has killed at least 325 troops, about half the number killed by bombs, the Pentagon says.

Among the problems contributing to the delays in getting the stronger body armor, the Pentagon is relying on a cottage industry of small armor makers with limited production capacity. Each company must independently come up with its own design for the plates, which then undergo military testing.

Just four vendors have begun making the enhanced armor, according to military and industry officials. Two more companies are expected to receive contracts by next month, while 20 or more others have plates that are still being tested.

Shortage of material

An important material that strengthens the ceramic plates also remains in short supply despite a federal initiative aimed at prodding private industry into meeting the growing demand, military officials said.

"Nobody is happy we haven't been able to do it faster," Maj. Gen. William D. Catto, head of the Marine Corps Systems Command, said in the interview.

"If I had the capability, I'd like to see everybody that needs enhanced SAPI to have it and, at the rate we have now, we're going to have months before we get the kind of aggregate numbers we want to have," Catto said, referring to the thicker plates, known as the Enhanced Small Arms Protective Insert. "That's just a fact of life because of the raw materials' paucity and the industrial base."

Military officials say they have kept the effort to supply troops with the stronger body armor quiet to avoid alerting the insurgency, which they say is adept at mining news reports for any evidence of weaknesses in the U.S. force. At the request of the Pentagon, the Times has omitted from this article details that would expose vulnerabilities in the original armor.

Upgrading the plates for U.S. troops in Iraq will cost at least $160 million, according to industry estimates. Manufacturers say they are charging the military roughly $600 each for enhanced SAPI plates, compared with $400 for the original plate.

Issue arose early

Body armor arose as an issue in Iraq shortly after the invasion in March 2003, when insurgents began attacking U.S. troops who had been given only vests. The Army had planned to give the plates only to frontline soldiers. Officials now concede that they underestimated the insurgency's strength and commitment to fighting a war in which there are no back lines.

The ensuing scramble to produce more plates was marred by a series of missteps in which the Pentagon gave one contract to a former Army researcher who had never mass-produced anything. He was allowed to struggle with production for a year before he gave up. An outdated delivery plan slowed the arrival of plates that were made. In all, the war was 10 months old before every soldier in Iraq had the original plates in January 2004.

Four months later, the Pentagon quietly issued a solicitation for the enhanced plates that would resist stronger attacks. At the same time, it worked to make improvements to the vests, including adding shoulder and side protection.

Pentagon officials said they had been hampered in their efforts by the need to make the armor as light as possible.

"You can trace this back to the early centuries ago when they started wearing body armor to the point they couldn't get on the horse," Sorenson said. "We are doing the same sort of thing. You can only put so much armor on a soldier to the point where they can't move."

Col. Bruce D. Jette, who directed a special unit at the Pentagon known as the Rapid Equipping Force until he retired last fall, said the military's reliance on small companies to make body armor succeeded in spurring innovation. But in failing to acquire the rights to those designs, the military might be passing up an opportunity to increase production, he said.

Pentagon officials said the pending addition of two vendors to the four now producing enhanced SAPI will increase production to 25,000 sets of the plates a month from 20,000. Each vest requires two plates.

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