NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 1/11/2006 5:49:19 PM ET 2006-01-11T22:49:19

Military officials Wednesday told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during a closed-door hearing that improvements to the body armor worn by troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are under way and manufacture of the beefed-up personal protection will begin soon.

Body armor in use in Iraq and Afghanistan has been through seven improvements, said Maj. Gen. Jeffery Sorenson, during a news conference after the hearing.  "We've been continuing to improve [the body armor] over time, taking advantage of technology and lightweight composites," he said. However, each improvement in protection must be weighed against the increased hindrance to the soldier’s effectiveness, he said.

The Pentagon is under increased scrutiny regarding the efficacy of body armor issued after the results of an unreleased study were made public showing that as many as 80 percent of Marines killed in Iraq from wounds to the upper body could have survived had they been wearing an expanded version of the current standard issue Interceptor body armor.

The report studies a small number of Marine fatalities in Iraq, showing that out of the 93 cases studied, 74 were struck by bullets and shrapnel in areas of the torso unprotected by the bullet-resistant ceramic vests, primarily in the sides and shoulders.

The unreleased report was first published by Defense Watch, a news service carried by the Web site “Soldiers for Truth.”  The New York Times confirmed the Web site’s report in a story carried Saturday. 

The Pentagon declined comment to both the Times and Defense Watch, saying any discussion of the study would aid the enemy.

Democrats fired a series of broadsides at the White House over the report, leading Sen. John Warner, D-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to call the closed-door session Wednesday.

"The number of lives lost to inadequate armor could reach the hundreds if Army deaths attributable to inadequate armor not included in this survey are counted as well," said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., a member of the Armed Services Committee, in a letter to Warner.  "Lives may have been needlessly lost because of inadequate equipment."  Clinton said that the extra protection for the body armor would cost just $260 per soldier.

Pentagon sources told NBC News that Army officials would explain to the Senate panel that enhancements for the vests are already under way, including improved and slightly heavier ceramic plates for front and back. Preparations are also under way for production of smaller pouches and plates to allow for better individual coverage for the sides.

The Army is making changes to body armor, said Col. Thomas Spoehr, who is in charge of supplying body armor to the field, but those changes have to be weighed against any particular mission.

"You could outfit a soldier from head to toe in armor, and he would be completely useless," Spoehr said. "We have to be sensitive to the weight burden we put on soldiers in that arduous environment over there.” 

The average infantryman carries 85 pounds of gear into battle, according to officials at the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Ga. This includes weapons, ammunition, water, protective gear and so on. The standard-issue body armor now weighs in at 16 pounds.

Planned improvements to the current body armor will add 11 pounds, the Army said. By comparison, the “flak jacket” worn during the Vietnam War weighed in at around 25 pounds.

Next-generation protection
The Army also is deep into the next generation of personal battlefield protection, developing so-called liquid body armor. This armor is light and flexible and is “soaked” into the traditional Kevlar vest; the liquid is known as “shear thickening fluid,” or STF.

During normal handling STF flows like a liquid; however, “once a bullet or a frag hits the vest, it transitions to a rigid material, which prevents the projectile from penetrating the soldier’s body,” according to researcher Eric Wetzel, a mechanical engineer who heads the research project for the Weapons and Materials Research Directorate of the Army Research Laboratory.  “We would first like to put this material in a soldier’s sleeves and pants, areas that aren’t protected by ballistic vests but need to remain flexible,” said Wetzel, in an interview with the Army News Service. 

Armored vests have continued to evolve in the real world testing of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.  First, there was added groin protection, then the collars on the vests were raised and now side protection has started to appear on some vests.

And yet as the armor has developed, so have the tactics and skills of the enemy leading to an increased number of Marines and soldiers being shot in the head, according to military officials and reports from the field.

Since the beginning of the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, body armor has been a flashpoint for the Pentagon.  At first there wasn’t enough to supply all the troops and then manufacture was ramped up so quickly that thousands of defective units were issued to Marines in the field and had to be recalled earlier this year.

And in November the Army recalled 8,000 pieces of body armor that it discovered hadn’t been through proper testing and inspection.

Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade "Rakkasans" are required to wear an array of protective clothing they refer to as their "happy gear," ranging from Kevlar drapes over their shoulders and sides to knee pads and fire-resistant uniforms.

Many soldiers say they feel encumbered by the weight and restricted by fabric that does not move as they do. They frequently joke as they strap on their equipment before a patrol and express relief when they return and peel it off.

Second Lt. Josh Suthoff, 23, of Jefferson City, Mo., said he already sacrifices enough movement when he wears the equipment. More armor would only increase his chances of getting killed, he said.

"You can slap body armor on all you want, but it's not going to help anything. When it's your time, it's your time," said Suthoff, a platoon leader in the brigade's 1st Squadron, 33rd Cavalry Regiment. "I'd go out with less body armor if I could."

The study and the real-world experiences of troops in the field highlight the difficulty faced by the Army and Marine Corps in providing the best level of body armor protection in a war against an insurgency whose tactics are constantly changing.

Debate for the ages
The debate between protection versus mobility has dominated military doctrine since the Middle Ages, when knights wrapped themselves in metal suits for battle, said Capt. Jamey Turner, 35, of Baton Rouge, La., a commander in the 1st Squadron, 33rd Cavalry Regiment.

The issue comes up daily on the battlefield in Iraq, and soldiers need to realize there is no such thing as 100 percent protection, he said.

"You've got to sacrifice some protection for mobility," he added. "If you cover your entire body in ceramic plates, you're just not going to be able to move."

Others in the regiment said the issue of protecting soldiers with more body armor is of greater concern at home than among soldiers in Iraq, who have seen firsthand how life and death hang on a sliver of luck when an improvised explosive device hits a Humvee.

"These guys over here are husbands, sons and daughters. It's understandable people at home would want all the protection in the world for us. But realistically, it just don't work," said Sgt. Paul Hare, 40, of Tucumcari, N.M.

Contributing to this story were Jim Miklaszewski of NBC News, the Associated Press and Brock N. Meeks of MSNBC.com.

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