U.S. Struggling to Get Soldiers Updated Armor

By MICHAEL MOSS

New York Times

August 15, 2005

For the second time since the Iraq war began, the Pentagon is struggling to replace body armor that is failing to protect American 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 thicker, more resistant plates, tens of thousands of soldiers are still without the stronger protection because of a string of delays in the Pentagon's procurement system.

The effort to replace the armor began in May 2004, just months after the Pentagon finished supplying troops with the original plates - a process also plagued 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.

Citing security concerns, the officials declined to say exactly how many more of the stronger plates were needed, or how much armor had already 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 Wednesday 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 to the military's goals in Iraq. Gunfire has killed at least 325 troops, about half the number killed by bombs, according to the Pentagon.

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. In addition, 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.

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 Wednesday 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," General 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."

Throughout the war, the military's procurement system has struggled to stay ahead of the insurgency. Most notably, efforts by the Defense Department to add armor to the Humvee - a vehicle never intended for combat - often have been undermined by the insurgents' relentless ability to build more powerful bombs.

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 media reports for any evidence of weaknesses in the American force. At the request of the Pentagon, The Times has omitted from this article details that would expose vulnerabilities in the original armor and the types of munitions that the original plates cannot repel.

Upgrading the plates for American troops in Iraq will cost at least $160 million, according to industry estimates.

Body armor arose as an issue in Iraq shortly after the invasion in March 2003, when insurgents began attacking American troops who had been given only vests and not bullet-resistant plates. 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 plates in late 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," General 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."

The new enhanced SAPI plates weigh about one pound more than the original plates, bringing the total body armor system with vest to about 18 pounds, military officials said.

Among the first soldiers to use the stronger armor were the military's special forces, who are known to cut the handles off their toothbrushes to reduce the weight of their packs.

Shortly after the Iraq war began, insurgents began attacking American soldiers engaged in stationary tasks like directing traffic or less arduous combat operations.

Cpl. Nicholas Roberts, 23, a marine from Colorado, was wounded last December in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, when his armor plates failed to deflect an insurgent's attack. He just started walking again this summer after nine operations. In wearing the armor, he said, "you know your risks, that it's not going to stop everything."

"Unfortunately," he added, when told about the enhanced plates, "they didn't have that when I was in."

Among the first companies to begin making enhanced SAPI for the military was Simula, a safety technology company based in Phoenix, military contracting records show. It was awarded a contract in August 2004, and received a new $12 million order this month.

Armor Holdings, a company based in Jacksonville, Fla., that owns Simula, has an exclusive contract to armor the military's Humvees. The company stirred some concern in the Pentagon in January when it balked at selling its legal rights to the Humvee armor, which the military wanted so it could involve additional manufacturers.

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 may be passing up an opportunity to increase production, he added.

Pentagon officials said the pending addition of two more vendors to the four that are now producing enhanced SAPI would increase production to 25,000 sets of the plates a month from 20,000. Each vest requires two plates. Worldwide, the Army would need nearly 2 million plates to supply all 996,000 troops using body armor with the enhanced plates.

Industry officials say they are charging the military roughly $600 each for enhanced SAPI plates, compared with $400 for the original plate.

Cercom, an advanced materials company based in Vista, Calif., began making enhanced plates for the Pentagon this summer and said it was working round the clock to fill its part of the military order. To go even faster, Richard J. Palicka, Cercom's president, said it would "need additional furnace capacity and that's expensive."

But industry and military officials say production is also constrained by a lingering shortage of an advanced fiber used to make the plates.

The material is made by only two companies, Honeywell and DSM, a Dutch concern. DSM, which built a new plant in Greenville, N.C., last year at the military's urging, and Honeywell say they are continuing to step up production. DSM said it planned to add another production line next year.

Mike Ryan, a Honeywell executive, said his company was meeting the demand for its version of this material, known as Spectra Shield, until just last month when orders from plate makers surged. "There is a learning curve here that we are trying to come up," Mr. Ryan said.

The military is still trying to assess just how well body armor is working. Pentagon officials said Wednesday during the interview that numerous lives had been saved. To emphasize the point, they played a video taken recently by an Iraqi insurgent in which an American soldier - knocked down by a bullet striking his vest - got back on his feet unharmed and took cover.

The Armed Forces Medical Examiner's Office which has undertaken a number of initiatives in the Iraq war to reduce casualties, has urged the Pentagon to have field commanders return the body armor of slain soldiers so it can be examined along with their wounds. Earlier in the war, the military medical corps helped spur improvements in eye protection and set off an examination of the Army's new helmet by studying wound patterns.

But in interviews this spring, the Medical Examiner's Office said it was receiving only about 10 percent of the vests worn by slain soldiers, too few to get a complete picture of the armor's performance.

Meanwhile, a burst of research is under way to develop even stronger body armor, though some earlier efforts appear to have slipped through the cracks. At the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Stephen D. Nunn said his group formulated a polymer that can be added to the ceramic plates to increase their strength. "Our material and assembly seems to perform better than anything else I've read about," he said.

But the group's contract was limited to fortifying helicopters. When that project ended in 2001, there was no money to extend the work to body armor, Mr. Nunn said.

At the behest of the military, researchers are also studying how to make body armor more resistant to explosive devices. In a recent technical paper, one scientist, Thomas Friend, said that more work needed to be done on analyzing the shock waves produced by these blasts and how they interact with the body and the armor.

Some armor, he warned, could aggravate the damage from blasts by twisting the waves as they pass through the body.