The Next Generation Body Armor Design Gets A Show In Natick

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Body Armor for US Army
Body Armor for US Army

The Army’s Natick research center showed off the next generation body armor yesterday to Secretary of the Army Francis J. Harvey, but it’s not scheduled to get on the battlefield for three years.

The next generation body armor hangs on a frame 2 inches from a soldier’s body, a design that researchers say limits the impact and injury from a roadside bomb or mortar shell. Sergeant Joshua Devereaux modeled the gear for Harvey, who asked what he thought of it.

I’d take this system right now,

the sergeant said. But Devereaux and other soldiers will have to wait.

The next generation body armor remains under development and has not been funded by Congress. Harvey and General Benjamin S. Griffin, head of Army Materiel Command, held classified meetings on next generation body armor during a one-day tour of the US Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick.

US Representative Martin T. Meehan, a Lowell Democrat, said that while the military has improved its performance, it still needs to find ways to get the new armor to soldiers and Marines sooner, especially with the additional troops headed to Iraq.

“We’re still not giving soldiers the proper body armor to protect themselves,” Meehan said. “The higher-ups are always saying we do, but when you talk to people, you find out we’re not getting them the best technology. I think it’s embarrassing.”

Such criticisms are not new. Early in the Iraq war, soldiers and their families were spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on protective gear they said the military was not providing. In 2005, Pentagon leaders agreed to reimburse soldiers who bought their own body armor, but six months later the Pentagon reversed its stand, banning the practice. Officials said at the time that they had questions about commercial product quality and could not guarantee the equipment’s effectiveness.

There have also been calls for side armor for additional protection. Last January, The New York Times reported that a secret Pentagon study found that as many as 80 percent of the Marines who have been killed in Iraq from wounds to the upper body could have survived if they had extra body armor. Such side armor has been available since 2003, the newspaper reported, but has not been routinely available to troops.

Meeting with reporters in Natick yesterday, Harvey defended the time it takes to get equipment to the field. He said the number of armored Humvees, for example, increased from hundreds to tens of thousands between 2003 and 2005.

“I come from private industry,” he said. “And I don’t think anybody in private industry could have responded that quickly.”

The military currently issues Interceptor next generation body armor, a vest that hangs over a soldier’s torso and is made out of Kevlar and ceramic plates. When struck by mortar or gunfire, even at close range, it can absorb much of the impact.

But the plates still pack a punch, an impact that can crack a soldier’s sternum, break a rib, or cause serious bruising, said Natick engineer Jean-Louis “Dutch” DeGay.

Chassis, the next generation body armor

The next generation body armor, called the Chassis, is also made of Kevlar and ceramic, but the plates are 12 percent larger, 2 to 4 pounds lighter, and hang from a shoulder frame inches from the body. The next generation body armor also includes two underarm panels about 8 inches long, which hang about an inch from the body and provide more protection.

“That was one of the lessons learned from the Interceptor,” DeGay said.

The redesign is part of a broader effort by the Army to create the Future Force Warrior, rethinking everything from the design of helmets to T-shirts. Much of the emphasis is on how to incorporate more technology into standard uniforms, including heart rate monitors, computers, and global positioning systems.

The Natick center develops rations, clothing, and other equipment. Harvey also inspected the latest Meals Ready to Eat (such as chicken pesto with bowtie pasta) and saw a parade of new, wrinkle-free, fade-resistant uniforms. The center employs about 1,100 civilians, 750 contractors, and 150 military personnel.