As roadside bombs take an increasingly costly toll among U.S. and
coalition troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military services
are struggling to provide more effective body armor for deployed
Iraq, insurgents now are attacking coalition forces with improvised
explosive devices—IEDs—an estimated 30 times a week,
representing “about a hundred percent increase from last year,”
Brig. Gen. Ives J. Fontaine, head of the 1st Corps Support Command,
At press time, the combined number of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan
had climbed to 2,078 dead and 14,575 wounded since hostilities began
Amid this carnage, protecting U.S. troops from such attacks is
“a top priority,” Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, chief of
the U.S. Central Command, assured the Senate Armed Services Committee.
All military and civil-service personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan,
for example, have been issued the Interceptor Body Armor system,
he said. By 2006, the Army plans to field 840,000 of them, including
788,000 for operational forces, 30,000 for training bases and 22,000
The Interceptor system, first introduced in 1998 by Point Blank
Body Armor Inc., of Pompano Beach, Fla., includes an outer tactical
vest (OTVs) and ceramic plates, called small-arms protective inserts
(SAPIs), designed to shield against small-arms fire and bomb fragments.
With a combined weight of 16.7 pounds, the Interceptor is nine
pounds lighter than the Personnel Armor System for Ground Troops
(PASGT), which it replaced. It also offers more protection. The
Interceptor’s vest—made with Kevlar, Cordura and Twaron—is
designed to stop fragments and 9 mm pistol rounds.
The inserts are composite ballistic ceramic plates, made of boron
carbide or silicon carbide, with a coated ballistic fiber backing.
When they are added, the Interceptor can block 7.62 mm bullets,
the kind fired by AK-47 automatic rifles.
The largest supplier of SAPI plates is ArmorWorks LLC, of Tempe,
Ariz., according to the firm’s president, William J. Perciballi.
Since the invasion of Afghanistan, he told National Defense that
ArmorWorks has shipped 350,000 SAPI sets to the Army, Marines and
Defense Supply Center in Philadelphia. Last fall, Perciballi added,
the company received another four-year contract, for $460 million,
to deliver an additional 500,000 sets.
The increased protection provided by the Interceptor system is
helping combat troopers to survive hits that might have killed them
in previous wars.
In June, for example, Pfc. Stephen Tschiderer, a medic with the
256th Brigade Combat Team, was shot in the chest by an enemy sniper
while on patrol in west Baghdad. He was knocked to the ground, but
not seriously injured because of his body armor. He sprang to his
feet, returned fire and helped his team track down and capture the
sniper, who was wounded during the skirmish. Tschiderer ended up
treating the sniper who shot him.
The Interceptor system, however, has its limitations. For one thing,
it covers only the torso, with removable attachments for the groin
and throat. For this reason, more than 80 percent of all battlefield
wounds—according to some estimates—are to the extremities,
the arms and legs.
A trooper’s sides also are vulnerable, since the SAPIs currently
cover the front and back of the body, said Maj. Wendell Leimbach
Jr., body armor and load-bearing equipment team leader at Marine
Corps Systems Command at Quantico, Va.
In addition, questions have been raised about the level of ballistic
protection offered by the Interceptor system. In May, the Marine
Corps recalled 5,277 vests after a Marine Corps Times article charged
that the service accepted 19,000 of them that had failed government
tests by suffering “multiple complete penetrations”
by 9 mm rounds.
Marine Corps officials retorted that they accepted the vests in
question because they were needed urgently when Leathernecks were
ordered back into Iraq and Afghanistan in the spring and fall of
2004. “The OTVs in every instance are a significant improvement
over the outdated [PASGT] flak jackets they replaced,” said
Capt. Jeff Landis, a spokesman for Marine Corps Systems Command.
Brig. Gen. William Catto, head of the command, insisted in a letter
to the Times that all 19,000 vests, even those recalled, were capable
of doing what they were designed to do—stop 9 mm rounds and
shrapnel. “We recalled the 5,277 OTVs in question only to
allay any concerns caused by your article,” he said.
Another controversy arose in August, when the New York Times reported
that the military services are encountering delays in replacing
the original ceramic inserts used with the Interceptor system with
more advanced, stronger versions.
The Army chief of staff, Peter J. Schoomaker, disagreed, telling
reporters: “We are ahead of the problem with body armor. We
now are producing 20,000 sets of enhanced body armor a month.”
Marine officials, however, conceded that production of the new
inserts is not proceeding as rapidly as they would like, but they
said the solution is out of their hands. “The problem is that
the materials used to make the inserts just isn’t being produced
fast enough to handle the numbers we need,” Landis said.
The Advanced SAPIs, as they are known, are made with two manmade
fibers, Spectra and Dyneema, whose manufacturers are having a hard
time keeping up with demand.
Spectra’s maker, Honeywell International, of Morris Township,
N.J, describes the material as “weight-for-weight, stronger
than steel.” Honeywell has been producing Spectra 24 hours
a day, seven days a week for several years to meet demand, said
Vice President Mike Ryan. In 2004, it announced a $20 million expansion
in its manufacturing facility in Richmond, Va.
Dyneema, produced by the Dutch firm DSM, is up to 15 times stronger
than steel, according to Director Christophe Dardel. In February,
DSM announced that it would spend $50 million to build a new fiber
line in Greenville, N.C. It will be the company’s fifth expansion
since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the third in Greenville
since U.S. troops went into Iraq in 2003.
Despite this growth, it will take the companies years to produce
enough fiber to meet the need, said Peter Matic, head of the Naval
Research Laboratory’s Multifunctional Materials Branch, in
In the meantime, the services will continue to provide improved
body armor to those units with the most need, “mission-by-mission,
job-by job,” he said.
To protect some of the most vulnerable personnel on the battlefield—turret
gunners, who in particular are exposed to roadside bombs—the
Defense Department’s Joint IED Task Force funded the development
of a Cupola Protective Ensemble. The CPE, as it is called, is a
spacesuit-like bomb suit made by Med-Eng Systems Inc., of Ottawa,
Ontario, and modified for the gunners. It is worn over regular body
Unlike the Interceptor system, the CPE provides blast protection
to the arms, legs, neck and face. To help wears cope with Iraq’s
120-degree summer heat, it comes with its own cooling system.
The CPE, however, is cumbersome, and the Corps has rejected it,
Landis said. It weighs about 40 pounds, and the cooling unit must
be attached to a vehicle or some other power system, preventing
its use by dismounted troops.
To provide additional protection for ground pounders, the services
are working on a number of other systems. In 2004, the Army fielded
50,000 sets of a Deltoid and Axillary Protector, or DAP, which is
designed to be worn in addition to the Interceptor and to shield
the upper and under arm. Meanwhile, the Marines deployed 33,000
copies of a similar set called the Armor Protection Enhancement
System, called APES.
The Marines were not entirely satisfied with APES. “It saved
Marine lives,” said Daniel M. Fitzgerald, infantry combat
equipment program manager at Marine Corps Systems Command. “But
it also cut off circulation to arms, and it got hung up in turrets.”
To correct these problems, the Marines have worked with NRL, the
Army Research Laboratory, FS Technology and Oklahoma State University
to produce a second generation of body armor attachments.
Called QuadGard, this system also is worn with the Interceptor,
but it extends protection to entire arms and legs. “The question
was what was the appropriate level of protection for arms and legs,”
Leimbach said. “We spent a lot of time trying to crack that
The QuadGard system is designed to reduce severe arm and leg injuries
by protecting against the large number of small blast fragment generated
by IEDs and other ordnance. Each arm guard, which attaches to the
standard Interceptor vest, weighs 1.6 pounds, while the pants add
another 6.5 pounds.
Marines wanted the set to be light and flexible enough for soldiers
and Marines to shoot, run and climb while wearing it. It was tested
extensively at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.
The set “looks cumbersome, but I will tell you that looks
can be deceiving,” Leimbach said. “I ran the course
wearing it. I even climbed up the cargo net and down the other side
with no trouble at all.”
QuadGard, however, is heavy enough that it is not for all Marines,
Leimbach conceded. But it is considered useful for vehicle crews,
breaching parties in urban operations, security and support units,
sentry and checkpoint duty, and roadside patrols.
The system was developed quickly to meet an urgent request early
this summer from the II Marine Expeditionary Force, Leimbach said.
II MEF has ordered 4,500 sets, with delivery to be completed in
The Marines developed a small SAPI to fit along both sides of the
body within three weeks this summer. Sixty sets already have gone
out to especially high-risk deployed units, Leimbach said, declining
to name them on the basis of operational security. Another 500 sets
will become available within the next couple of weeks, and an additional
10,000 will be produced as soon as possible, he said.
The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Materials and Manufacturing
Directorate, at Wright-Patterson Air force Base, Ohio, took a new
body-armor prototype to Iraq this summer for testing. The so-called
Level 4 body armor offers protection to the biceps, legs and ribs,
in addition to the front and back torso. It includes sturdier ceramic
plates, which can take six bullet strikes, while standard plates
can shatter after one hit, according to the Air Force 1st Lt. Todd
Turner. At 37 pounds, the Level 4 is too heavy for foot soldiers,
he said, but could be useful for convoys.
Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories, N.M., have developed
a body-armor attachment designed to protect the forearms and upper
arms of personnel riding atop Humvees and other military vehicles.
The Sandia Gauntlet, as it is known, “covers from the top
of the shoulder to the wrist,” explained Dan Rondeau, the
lab’s force protection program manager. It is made of heavy
layers of Kevlar, with carbon-composite inserts.
The lab developed the gauntlet on its own initiative, Rondeau said.
The Army Rapid Equipping Force has acquired 10 sets for field evaluation,
and the Air Force Protection Battle Lab has received another 50.
One serious problem with body armor, particularly in 120 degree
summer desert environments, is heat. The Marines are experimenting
with several ways of helping armor-wearing Leathernecks stay a little
This summer, at Fort Hunter Liggett, Calif., they tested two types
of thin, mesh vests that fit between the armor and the uniform,
permitting air to circulate while body heat and perspiration escape.
“They’re light—they only weigh a few ounces,”
explained Maj. Denise Garcia, head of the Combat Services Support
Branch at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory’s Technology
“The initial feedback that we’re getting is good,”
she said. “Marines who normally get heat rash while wearing
body armor aren’t getting it.” A unit from the Marine
Air Ground Training Command at 29 Palms, Calif., will deploy with
this technology soon, said Leimbach.
Meanwhile, the Army’s Natick Soldier Systems Center, in Massachusetts,
is conducting long-term research on using new fibers to reduce body
“One of the fibers we’re looking at is M-5,”
said Philip Cunniff a mechanical engineer with Natick’s Ballistics
Technology Team. M-5, made by Magellan Systems International Inc.,
of Richmond, is a high-strength fiber that can resist high temperatures.
“It has the potential to decrease the weight of body armor
substantially,” Cunniff said.
Use of M-5 is still in the experimental stage. In December 2004,
Magellan completed construction of a pilot plant and expansion of
its laboratories. When fully operational, the plant will produce
between 20 and 40 metric tons per year, well below potential market
demand, according to Magellan CEO Gene Vetter. Initially at least,
the M-5 produced there will be used largely for research and development
Both the Army and Marines in recent years have replaced their old
PASGT helmets with new versions designed to offer more protection
and an improved fit, while working better with body armor. Now the
Marines are developing helmets for units with specific needs.
“We have a new prototype for snipers,” Leimbach said.
“They spend a lot of time firing in the prone position, using
a rifle scope. This prototype provides more room in the back, so
that the body armor doesn’t push the helmet forward when the
shooter is on his belly.” The Marines have a platoon deployed
with the sniper helmet and are awaiting feedback.
Also in the works are attachments made of the same material as
the Interceptor vests that fit between a helmet’s back and
the vest’s collar to protect the back of the neck, said the
project officer, Marine Capt. John T. Gutierrez. “It’s
going to look almost like a Samurai helmet,” he said. “It’s
still a concept now. It’s not fielded yet.”
The Corps has fielded more than 190,000 sets of goggles and spectacles,
called the Marine Eye Protection System. The sets—made by
Eye Safety Systems Inc., of Sun Valley, Idaho—are designed
to protect eyes from fragmentation. For troopers with vision problems,
they can be outfitted with corrective inserts.
Marines are issued both for different purposes, Leimbach said.
“The goggles offer a higher level of protection,” he
explained. “They form a complete sea around the eyes, keeping
out sand and wind. But they are more likely to fog, and are uncomfortable
to wear for long periods of time.”
The spectacles allow unrestricted airflow, permitting the eyes
to breath and making them easier to wear for lengthy durations,
The Marines took care to choose an attractive, wrap-around design
for the spectacles. “We call it the chick factor,” Leimbach
said. “If our young Marines don’t think they look good
in the glasses, they won’t wear them. And we want them to
do that. They definitely save eyeballs on the battlefield.”