Monday, October 13, 2003


Nearly one-quarter of the 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq still have not been issued a new type of ceramic body armor strong enough to protect against bullets fired from assault rifles.

Delays in funding, production and shipping mean it will be December before all troops in Iraq will have the vests, which were introduced four years ago, military officials say.

Congress approved $310 million in April to buy 300,000 bulletproof vests, with 30,000 destined to complete outfitting of the troops in Iraq. Of that money, however, only about $75 million has reached the Army office responsible for overseeing the manufacture and distribution of the vests, said David Nelson, who works at the office.

Angry members of Congress have denounced the Pentagon. They say up to 44,000 troops lack the vests because of sluggish supply chain, a figure significantly higher than that given by the Pentagon. Relatives of some soldiers have resorted to buying the body armor, which costs more than $1,000, and shipping it to Iraq, the lawmakers say.

“I got a letter from a young soldier in Baghdad saying that the men in his group were concerned that they had cheap armor that was incapable of stopping bullets. And they wondered why they could not have the best protection possible under the circumstances,” said Rep. Ted Strickland, Ohio Democrat.

The House version of an $86.7 billion supplemental spending request for Iraq’s reconstruction passed last week would include $251 million for body armor and for clearing unexploded munitions, although it’s not clear whether additional money would speed up the process at this point. President Bush’s original request included no additional money for body armor.

The military’s Interceptor vests, introduced in 1999, include removable ceramic plates in the front and back that can stop bullets such as the 7.62 mm rounds fired by Kalashnikov rifles common in Iraq and Afghanistan. Older-model vests can protect against shrapnel and other low-speed projectiles but not high-velocity rifle rounds.

Several soldiers serving in both countries have credited the Interceptor vests with saving their lives.

Each vest with its plates weighs more than 16 pounds and costs more than $1,000.

The shortfall in Iraq occurred because the military’s need for body armor outstripped its ability to make and deliver the Interceptor plates, said Mr. Nelson, the Army’s deputy product manager for outfitting soldiers.

The Army had boosted production to supply soldiers fighting in Afghanistan when planning for the Iraq war began in earnest last year, Mr. Nelson said.

Production of the plates surged a year ago from about 3,000 per month to 6,000 to 10,000 per month, Mr. Nelson said. Current production is about 25,000 plates per month, and the Army is working to double that to 50,000 per month, he said.

“It’s not a question of money, it’s a question of capacity to manufacture these devices,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard B. Myers told a Senate committee last month. “We’re making them as quickly as we can.”

Of the American soldiers in Iraq who have the body armor, some received it before arriving there and others after deployment.

Mr. Nelson said the Army originally hired three companies to make the plates: Armor Works LLC of Tempe, Ariz.; Ceradyne Inc. of Costa Mesa, Calif; and Simula Inc. of Phoenix.

The Army recently added three companies to make the inserts, Mr. Nelson said: Point Blank Body Armor Inc., a division of DHB Industries, of Carle Place, N.Y.; ProTech Armored Products, a subsidiary of Armor Holdings Inc., of Jacksonville, Fla.; and ForceOne LLC, of Spruce Pine, N.C.

To help meet the demand, all six companies also are making heavier versions of the bulletproof plates, which can be manufactured more quickly and easily, Mr. Nelson said.

Army Sgt. Chris Smith, 24, shot in the chest during an ambush in Iraq in late August, is among those who has credited the vest with saving his life.

“His armor blew up with the force … shattered like it was supposed to,” said his mother, Bev Smith of Bismarck, N.D. Her son returned fire and killed his attacker and suffered only a bruised chest, she told the Bismarck Tribune.

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