WASHINGTON, June 15 (UPI) -- All soldiers in Iraq will by Christmas get new armor plating to protect their armpits and sides from shrapnel, the Army announced Monday.
The new protection comes at a cost: the plates, attached to their flak vests, will add nearly five pounds to the 16-pound armor they already carry, and it will significantly reduce the personal ventilation, making the blazing hot temperatures of Iraq feel even hotter, a senior official said.
"Everything is a balance. We want every soldier to come back without any injuries, but we also want them to be effective on the battlefield," said Brig. Gen. James R. Moran, the Army's program executive officer-soldier.
The side plating, which attaches with Velcro onto flak vests that already contain 16 pounds of ceramic plating, restricts a soldier's ability to lift his arms to shoot and to climb in and out of windows, Moran said.
"They're going to be carrying more weight and they're going to cover where the soldier currently gets more ventilation," Moran said. "There is no perfect solution."
Protection for their exposed sides is especially important in Iraq, where roadside explosive devices claim almost one military life a day. A soldier in Iraq specifically asked Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about the lack of protection for soldiers' sides and armpits in May.
It is certain to be of interest to Congress, which has made the lag in armor for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan a major battle cry in hearings with defense officials. In many cases soldiers and their families purchased the plates privately rather than wait for them to be issued by the Army.
The ceramic chest and back protective plates began being produced in 2002, but were only issued to dismounted infantry. When it became clear they were needed far more widely the Army increased production from 1,600 sets per month to 25,000. Every soldier in Iraq is now outfitted with the plates, according to Pentagon officials.
The Army will issue 50,000 sets of the side plates by the end of September. An Army official said the fiscal year 2005 budget provides enough money to outfit all 138,000 soldiers in Iraq with plates by December.
The new body armor is produced by Point Blank Body Armor in Oakland Park, Florida.
The new side armor plating is part of a series of equipment the Army is rolling out to improve the effectiveness of soldiers and increase their personal comfort.
Soldiers will see a major change in their camouflage or battle dress uniforms. They now have light colored desert "cammys," and dark green, black and brown woodland cammys. They are soon to be issued a single type of grayish-green camouflage with a digital pattern that is much more effective at providing cover than either of the other two BDUs, according to the Army.
The camouflage uniforms have been under development since January 2003 and represent a total redesign. Gone are buttons and black boots. They are replaced with draw strings, zippers, Velcro, strategically placed pockets, brown boots and a special wrinkle-free non-reflective fabric that provides added concealment against an enemy with night-vision goggles.
The old BDUs needed starching and ironing, and those chemicals built up in the uniforms, gradually making the material shiny and more vulnerable to night-vision goggles. The new uniforms will dry without wrinkles but will not be as crisp as the version they replace -- a fact the Army is trying to pass on to commanders so they do not fault soldiers for rumpled uniforms.
The digitized pattern and the subdued colors of the camouflage are meant to help soldiers move from scrubby desert to woodland to urban environment without necessitating a change in uniform. Moran called the new BDUs the "80 percent" solution, allowing soldiers to move from environment to environment with some level of camouflage. That's better than the large-patterned camouflage they will replace, which he said offers only 50 percent camouflage.
The uniforms are already in use by a brigade in Iraq, which gives them high marks for utility. Each of the Army's 1.4 million active and reserve soldiers will get four sets of the new BDUs. Each set costs about $$@$!88, and they are made entirely in the United States. They will begin being distributed in February 2005 at a rate of 15,000 per month. The transition to the new uniform will be complete in December 2007.
The Army last redesigned its BDUs in 1981, the height of the Cold War when it expected the next battle to be fought against the Soviet Union in the wilds of Eastern Europe.
The Army is also introducing a new family of personal weapons for the soldier. The guns will replace the M-4 and M-16 rifles.
The guns share a common body with interchangeable scopes and barrels and range from 6.4 pounds to 8.4 pounds, about two to three pounds less than the M-4 and M-16 with similar accuracy and will be about 30 percent cheaper. The designated marksman's rifle also uses a drum magazine that takes 100 loose bullets -- similar to the old Tommy gun -- rather than a strip of bullets standard in the current machine gun.
The new guns will require significantly less maintenance as well. A test gun was fired 15,000 times without stopping for lubrication, compared to the M-4, which must be lubricated every 600 rounds.
The Army also is introducing a special cooling vest for helicopter crews to wear next to their skin to keep their core body temperature down in extremely hot conditions.