The Army has ordered that $3 million in new, lighter combat gear be sent immediately to two battalions preparing for Afghanistan, officials disclosed Friday.
The decision lifts a hold that the Army had ordered last month on the experimental effort, when it halted a shipment of the lighter armor equipment intended for troops already in the war zone. The turnabout came after The New York Times reported last Saturday on the decision to halt the shipment and recall an advance team that had been sent to Afghanistan, and after Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates asked the Army to explain the delay.
“Secretary Gates takes a special interest in all force protection matters,” said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary. “He wanted to know why this latest body armor design had not yet been provided to our soldiers in the field. He asked his staff to get to the bottom of it.”
Army officials had said that further reviews of the new equipment, and of light weight body armour in particular, were to make certain that the entire set of protective vests, clothing, weapons and tools would be an “integrated system” with a goal that soldiers would not be put at additional risk during the assessment, to be carried out during combat operations.
On Friday, Army officials said that the pre-deployment tests of the equipment had been completed, and that the service’s leadership was satisfied that the new gear would adequately protect soldiers while helping to relieve exhaustion and reduce injuries — and give troops greater mobility, which adds to their survivability.
Among the equipment being sent to Afghanistan, about five pounds will be cut with the use of a lighter, more comfortable vest and carrier system for bullet-proof plates that cover the chest and back, Army officials said. However, the Army decided not to send a lighter body armor model of bullet-proof plates as originally proposed, but instead will continue using the current Army-approved plates that are about four pounds heavier.
The lighter plates have been adopted by the military’s Special Operations Command, which includes the Army’s elite light infantry troops, the Rangers. But senior Army officials said the extra protection offered by the heavier plates was important to protect soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan, given the increase in insurgent violence.
Army officials said that a persistent problem, and one that had delayed this assessment, was a lack of standard testing procedures across the armed forces.
Together, the new body armor, boots, rucksacks, weapons and slings for carrying extra bullets will shave at least 13 pounds from the load of the average soldier and almost 25 pounds for those who carry heavy machine guns. Models of the new machine gun are already in Afghanistan, officials said.
The average soldier’s load is about 60 pounds on routine patrols, but it doubles when soldiers must be away from base for days in the unforgiving mountains, valleys and deserts of Afghanistan.
An Army spokesman said Friday that the lighter-weight equipment would be provided next month to about 480 soldiers assigned to two battalions of the Fourth Infantry Division, now training at Fort Carson, Colo., before their deployment in coming weeks to Afghanistan.
Once they arrive in Afghanistan, the troops will be given several weeks to acclimate to the terrain before an assessment team, headed by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in conjunction with the Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group, arrives.Army officials stressed that soldiers will have available both the lighter plate carrier and vest and the heavier body armor for when that is required on missions.