Army's Search for Better Soldier Gear Continues Amid Budget Cuts
The Army hopes to equip soldiers in the coming years with lighter body armor, sleeker helmets, wearable health sensors, and eyewear that instantly transitions from light to dark.
The new gear — currently in development under an Army project called “soldier protection system” — is intended to satisfy troops’ long-standing complaints about equipment weight and functionality.
The future of this effort is in doubt, however, as it comes on the heels of a decade-long war buildup during which the Army spent tens of billions of dollars on soldier gear. Now confronting steep budget cuts, Army leaders are putting modernization programs on the back burner.
The soldier protection system, or SPS, illustrates the Army’s dilemma as it tries to modernize its future force while it copes with budget shortfalls and remains saddled by growing personnel and health costs.
Funding for SPS was $25.1 million in 2013, and dropped to $22.9 million in 2014. For 2015, the program’s budget will plummet to $7.5 million.
Army officials insist the program is not in jeopardy. “We are fully funded,” said Lt. Col. Frank Lozano, who served as product manager of soldier protective equipment until June.
Lozano said he could not comment on SPS proposed funding but said the Army is “committed” to supporting the program.
SPS has five components: new head protection, ballistic combat eyewear, a modular combat vest, lighter hard armor plates and a soldier sensor system. The sensors would monitor soldiers’ health and identify potential brain injuries.
What is different about SPS, Lozano said, is that the Army is not buying individual pieces of equipment in isolation. “The key is the integration and synchronization between systems.”
Eight companies have spent a year designing prototypes, with an eye toward future contract awards. It could be several years before the Army settles on what it wants and begins to buy equipment in large quantities.
Revision Military, Gentex Corp. and Ceradyne Inc., a subsidiary of 3M, are in contention for the headgear. A team of TYR Tactical and Point Blank is competing against Safariland and Hawk Protection for the combat vest. Hard body armor vendors include BAE Systems and Ceradyne.
Lozano said the Army will spend another year evaluating prototypes. “That helps vendors,” he said. “The government wants to invest in companies and help them be successful. I don't want anybody to fail.” Keeping companies in the program for another year, he said, will give them valuable soldier feedback so they can improve their prototypes in the second year of development.
After the development is completed, the Army plans to select one vendor for each item, and will buy equipment in low-rate production. “We'll be in production in fiscal year 2016,” he said. “The equipment will get into the hands of soldiers pretty quickly.”
SPS aims to satisfy soldiers’ requests made in post-combat surveys in recent years. The weight of current equipment is a constant complaint as soldiers routinely shoulder 120 pounds of gear which, over time, stresses knees and backs.
The new combat vest is intended to replace three items that soldiers currently use: a concealable body armor vest worn underneath the blouse, a plate carrier vest and the “improved outer tactical vest” that provides the most coverage. “In SPS we want to combine all three into a single modular vest,” said Lozano.
The eyewear seeks to solve a major problem that soldiers encounter in combat: Having to take off their ballistic sunglasses when they go indoors so they can see. The SPS prototype transitions from light to dark in one second at the push of a button. Previous transition eyewear designs take 20 to 30 seconds. “That's too long if you're going into a building and confronting somebody,” said Lozano.
Soldiers at the Army’s infantry school in Fort Benning, Georgia, tested SPS equipment last month, and expect to run trials again a year from now. This is the first opportunity the Army has had in years to bring multiple pieces of soldier equipment and see how they work together as a “system,” said Maj. Stephen Miller, chief of the soldier systems branch at the Maneuver Center of Excellence.
“We’ve always set goals, but we're just now having the time and the opportunity to look at the soldier as a system, to force the integration,” he told National Defense. That was tough to do when most of the Army was deployed.
A prerequisite of SPS is that equipment be at least 10 percent lighter than current versions, and offer at a minimum the same level of protection. “Unanimously, soldiers tell us every day they want equipment that weighs less,” said Miller, a combat veteran. “When you put 120 pounds on your back, it's a bad thing.”
The Army, to be sure, has been trying to lighten the soldier load for decades under various projects such as “land warrior” and “future force warrior,” with limited success.
Much of the weight burden is attributed to body armor. Depending on how many plates are inserted into garments, armor pounds quickly add up. Even if SPS meets the 10 percent weight reduction goal, that might be hardly noticeable to the average soldier, Miller said. For four plates, that’s just 2 pounds lighter. But if every piece of gear can be slimmed down by 10 percent, that could make a significant difference, he said. “Traditionally what we've done is come up with individual pieces, and small things add up over time.”
Despite the Army’s assurances that it intends to protect funding for soldier protective systems, skeptics worry that projects such as SPS are most vulnerable to budget cuts because they do not have a powerful constituency lobbying on their behalf. Before the Army was sent to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, it had negligible supplies of body armor and other essential gear. A soldier in 2004 complained to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that he had to “up armor” his Humvee with scrap metal from an Iraqi landfill. Rumseld’s infamous response: “You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have.”
The post-war spending cuts appear to be stirring fears of a return to those days. During a June town hall meeting at Bagram Air Force Base, Afghanistan, a noncommissioned officer voiced such concern to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. “What can service members do to ensure we don't regress to the point of going to war with the army you have, under-trained, under-protected, with only elite units having the best gear?” the soldier asked.
Hagel replied that there is no easy answer. “These are tough issues that we're dealing with, with the budget,” he said. “We will work our way through this.”
Body armor manufacturers and other suppliers of soldier equipment said in off-the-record interviews that the Army has essentially stopped buying, and they wonder how much longer they might stay in business. Research programs do not generate enough work to sustain a manufacturing plant, they insisted. The best-case scenario under SPS would be an order of 12,000 body armor plates for one battalion, to be delivered over three to five years.
From the Army’s perspective, buying new body armor, even if it’s 10 percent lighter, might not make financial sense when it has more than 200,000 plates in its inventory. But suppliers warn that, if they go out of business and the military is ordered to deploy a large force, the Army could find itself where it was in 2004.
Industrial base concerns prompted members of the House to insert language in the 2015 defense authorization bill that proposes adding $80 million to the defense budget to keep two U.S. suppliers of hard body armor in business. According to Bloomberg Government, body armor purchases peaked at $1.38 billion in 2007, when 172,000 U.S. troops were in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Marc A. King, an industry consultant who advises armor manufacturers, said research programs like SPS are inadequate to sustain a manufacturing base. “Factories will close,” he said. “If the Army thinks that the SPS program is going to support the continued operation of the industrial base, they clearly don’t understand business.”
Even large companies like BAE Systems and 3M Ceradyne “can't continue to support what the program manager wants if they don't make sales in other areas,” King said. Current factories were built to produce 50,000 plates a month, he said, whereas SPS at best would generate orders of 300 a month.
Suppliers in this market, meanwhile, are turning to the U.S. Special Operations Command, where they see greater demand for advanced soldier gear.
SOCOM has become a major customer for 3M’s protective headgear, said Dan Snustad, technical director at 3M Defense. The company developed an integrated ensemble of headwear, hearing protection and tactical radio. Having the hearing protection linked to the radio allows the members of a squad to stay connected, he said.
Like dozens of other firms, 3M is eyeing opportunities in SOCOM’s version of the Iron Man suit, called TALOS, for tactical assault light operator suit. Much of the technology that SOCOM wants exists in the commercial industry, said Snustad, but the challenge is to pull different components made by multiple vendors together into a single system.