WASHINGTON -- The Army announced yesterday that it plans to distribute 230,000 side-protecting armor inserts to troops in Iraq over the next year amid growing criticism that the Pentagon has delayed life-saving upgrades to body armor.
A Pentagon study done last summer but only disclosed recently found that improved armor might have prevented or minimized torso wounds that proved fatal to Marines in Iraq.
That report prompted Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican, to summon Pentagon brass to Capitol Hill yesterday to explain delays and material shortages that have plagued the Army and Marine armor programs.
"We will complete the delivery of this particular equipment this year ... 230,000 that will be done throughout this year," Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson said of the side plates yesterday.
But Sorenson refused to provide details on production and distribution, which annoyed some Democrats who attended the closed-door meeting. "We wanted to know why the Army has had all these delays and he didn't have a good answer," said one Senate staff member who attended.
Marine commanders requested improvements to side armor last June, but few of the inserts have made it to the field. That's prompted criticism from Senate Democrats, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat, who says hundreds of soldiers may have died needlessly as a result of inadequate armor.
The unreleased study that prompted the briefing was done last summer by the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner. It looked at 93 fatal wounds from the start of the war in March 2003 through June 2005. The study found that of 39 fatal torso wounds in which the bullet or shrapnel entered the Marine's body outside of the ceramic armor plate that protects the chest and back, 31 were close to the plate's edge.
"Either a larger plate or superior protection around the plate would have had the potential to alter the final outcome," the report concluded.
Sorenson said the Army has already modified its Interceptor vest seven times since the 1990s. A more extensive upgrade was approved after truck drivers complained their sides were unprotected by existing armor, he said.
Army spokesman Paul Boyce said soldiers in Iraq will get 3 1/2 -pound ceramic side plates as well as the Velcro-attached pouches into which the plates will fit on the vest.
The Marines have shipped 9,235 side-plate inserts to Iraq since November; About 19,000 more will be given to troops by April, according to Maj. Gen. William Catto of the Marine Corps' procurement arm.
The delay in the Army program, Pentagon officials say, resulted from shortages of some materials needed to produce the ceramic armor plating and the lack of a single large contractor who can produce mass orders. The Pentagon has also been sensitive to concerns that soldiers, already burdened by 75 pounds of battle gear in a desert war, would refuse to wear additional armor.
Larger plates could "reduce the mobility of the individual to the point where he or she can't protect themselves in trying to dodge a certain situation in combat," said Warner.
Catto said that extra shoulder protection is available to any Marine who wants it, but many are willing to trade additional safety for mobility.
Still, many Democrats seemed unimpressed by the military's explanations. Sen. Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, yesterday introduced a bill that would provide a "protective equipment allowance" of $1,100 for each soldier deployed to Iraq. And Clinton campaign aide Ann Lewis sent out an e-mail message to the senator's supporters and donors slamming the Bush administration's body armor policy as "unforgivable."
Glenn Thrush writes for Newsday. The Associated Press contributed to this article.