Making All Our Troops Bulletproof

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Army photo / Megan Locke Simpson

Army Specialst Arielle Mailloux gets some help adjusting her protoype Generation III Improved Outer Tactical Vest from Capt. Lindsey Pawlowski recently at Fort Campbell, Ky.

Shoot, move, communicate. This was the clear, succinct analysis given by an Army major when asked to describe the key components of a military mission.

In three words, the major illustrated the reality of modern war theatres — one in which a soldier’s safety and success relies as much on mobility as it does on strength.

Clearly-drawn front lines have become a thing of the past, due to complex locations with ubiquitous enemy threats. In places like Afghanistan, the line is barely visible at all. Constant and pervasive danger makes agile movement a high priority for all soldiers, whether they are assigned directly to combat or not.

It is surprising then that one of a soldier’s most basic and necessary pieces of equipment – body armor – can sometimes work in direct contradiction to that basic need.

Several years ago during a House Armed Services Committee hearing, I asked a young sergeant if he were ever tempted to take off his protective gear. He hesitated and glanced sheepishly at the general sitting nearby before giving a confident reply: “Yes, ma’am.”

He explained the armor was cumbersome, heavy and that sometimes it was just easier to maneuver without it.

A visit to Afghanistan amplified the sergeant’s concerns. There, I met with a colonel who heaved off his armor and, rubbing his sore knees, spoke of the burden the gear’s weight put on his joints.

Soldiers deployed to Afghanistan are outfitted with body armor that weighs as much as 40 pounds. When combined with the gear that troops must carry in the field, the total weight our soldiers carry can exceed 120 pounds. It can lead to long term muscular skeletal injuries and an elevated risk that armor may be removed in the field.

Lightened body armor, which the military has made progress on, would mean increased safety and reduced risk for soldiers like the sergeant and the colonel.

But for the major, the task of shoot, move, communicate is made even more difficult by the fact that the armor does not fit her because it was designed for a man.

Body armor is meant to fit snug to the body to stop shrapnel and absorb a bullet’s impact. Armor designed for a boxier male frame does not fit properly on the overwhelming majority of females, who have a very different stature and body type than their male counterparts.

The result is armor that rides up when she is seated or riding in a vehicle, exposing vital organs that should otherwise be protected. For females of small stature, even the smallest armor would hang from her shoulders instead of hugging her torso.

More than 14% of the Army is female, a figure expected to rise to 25% over the next 12 years. That will force the military to recognize the evolution of its fighting force. A Department of Defense review recently detailed the expanding combat role of women on the front line, escalating the need to develop body armor tailored to women.

Developing gender-specific body armor for women and lighter-weight body armor for all are not mutually exclusive undertakings. There has been progress made in both areas.

For example, a provision I authored in the Pentagon‘s 2010 authorization act established separate, dedicated budget line items to improve research, development and procurement of body armor. This effort ensures heightened congressional oversight for body-armor programs, and helped lead to the tripling of the financial commitment to body-armor research and development in this year’s House-passed authorization and appropriations bills. The 2013 authorization also directs the Pentagon for the first time to develop body armor specifically for female soldiers.

Currently, female soldiers in the 101st Airborne Division are using prototype armor for female and smaller-statured soldiers that was developed at Natick Laboratories in Massachusetts.

The new armor has received extremely positive feedback, with female service members citing the ability to run and shoot better. The better-fitting armor does not ride up, allowing for enhanced protection and less discomfort when handling firearms.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to see the innovative developments at Natick and to try on their latest gear. The difference in mobility was night and day.

As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, I am encouraged to see the military prioritizing the need for improved body armor for our servicemen and women. The past 10 years have seen major advancements in armor effectiveness and an unprecedented effort to move armor from concept phase into theatre. But even with recent research and development funding and the positive reviews coming out of the 101st Airborne, there is still more we can accomplish.

The ceramic plates that give body armor its stopping power remain difficult to mold to the curves of the female body. And a RAND Corp. study, funded by the 2011 authorization, found that at this time we can do no better than reducing body armor weight by around 10%.

In other words, we have nearly reached the limit of what can be done with the materials we currently have.

Research and development must continue, especially with new materials on the horizon. New armor utilizing materials such as liquid metals and nanotechnology could be the future of soldier safety. However, as the Rand Arroyo Center study noted, there is no “silver bullet” material solution at present. This will require sustained funding for R&D and testing. This is why the large increase in funding in this year’s defense spending bills was so significant, and why these funding trends must continue.

Natick Laboratories, the new Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center at the University of Massachusetts Lowell that recently opened, and other facilities like these around the country are working towards extraordinary breakthroughs that will catalyze state-of-the-art military resources for years to come.

I am concerned that as budgets contract and we draw down from Afghanistan, the Department of Defense will fall behind on body-armor technological advancement. We saw this happen before, in the run up to Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. It cannot happen again.

We must have a long-term strategy to adequately fund armor and other protective clothing and equipment research and development in the annual base budget. We are not in a position to rely on supplemental funding forever, and we cannot afford to be unprepared when future threats emerge.

As modern warfare evolves, the need to reconcile strength, safety and mobility becomes more important. Sergeant, major or colonel would agree a key step is to continue improving body armor and by doing so, optimize his – and her — ability to shoot, move and communicate.

Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., is a member of the armed services committee, and its personnel subcommittee