By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (March 18, 2011) -- The armor plates used in the plate carriers and IOTV Soldiers wear in combat are safe -- maybe too safe.
The ceramic enhanced small arms protective inserts worn in the improved outer tactical vests and lighter plate carriers are designed to provide ballistic protection to Soldiers in combat. But they are heavy, and industry is at an impasse when it comes to developing new armor technology that is as safe, yet lighter, said Brig. Gen. Peter N. Fuller, Program Executive Officer Soldier.
"We don't see anything that is game-changing or anything in the near term that is going to change our ability to provide increased protection at a lighter weight," Fuller said of the plates. "I think the next (thing) we need to look at is what is our requirement and is it a validated requirement?"
Fuller spoke March 17 before the House Armed Services Committee subcommittee on tactical air and land forces to discuss, among other things, the amount of weight Soldiers now carry on their bodies, as part of armor, gear, power and weapons, when they go into battle. That weight can sometimes be more than 120 pounds.
The general told lawmakers that perhaps the plates themselves could be made lighter because today, they are really over-engineered. He said a "holistic," head-to-toe review of body armor has shown the Army could provide a lighter plate to Soldiers because, Fuller said, "we have technically overbuilt our plates right now. We overbuilt them because of our testing process."
Fuller said the Army simply set the bar for protective capability of the plates too high.
"The way I say it is, we wanted to ensure you could go in the ring with Mike Tyson and if you could take two hits from Mike Tyson, then when Fuller climbs in the ring you knew you would be able to survive those rounds," he said.
Today, he said, body armor worn by Soldiers in the field may be unnecessarily heavy because it has been designed to protect against "a round that is not on any battlefield in the world," Fuller said. "We set that bar for a reason. Now we are trying to evaluate -- if that bar causes us to have increased weight, do we want to adjust the bar? "
Fuller also said as an effort to reduce weight on Soldiers, the Army is "trying to do a better job of systems engineering at the Soldier level." He said while the Army does a good job of systems engineering for large platforms "we've treated the Soldier as ... a Christmas tree -- we just hang things on Soldiers."
Fuller told lawmakers the Army must pay more attention to the amount of weight Soldiers carry on their back, and must do a better job of understanding "the physiological challenges of adding more kit regardless of its capability and the impact it will have on our Soldiers ability."
The general explained that a Soldier's cognitive skills diminish when they get tired from carrying so much weight, and "that's not what you want in a combat environment."
Fuller also said distributing loads across a combat unit might be one way to reduce the weight burden on the individual Soldiers.
"Can we distribute some of this capability across a unit? What's the risk and the advantages so we don't weigh down everybody with the same capability but distribute capability across the unit?" he asked.
Body armor for female Soldiers and for smaller Soldiers is also an issue Fuller said PEO Soldier has tackled. The latest version of the IOTV provides adjustments to allow smaller stature Soldiers to ensure their vests are cinched tight enough, while at the same time keeping the side plates where they belong -- at a Soldier's side.
"One size does not fit all within the Army," Fuller said, saying some 14 percent of the Army is women. The general said the Army is still having difficulties trying to make conforming body armor plates for Soldiers. "The physics associated with trying to have the body armor work in a complex shape is a bridge too far right now."
Another lawmaker questioned Fuller about the Army's individual carbine competition, to find a follow-on to the M4 Carbine weapon Soldiers are using now in Afghanistan. Fuller told the lawmaker the competition was not about meeting a specific need but about seeing if there was something better for Soldiers.
"We want to continue to improve the M4 -- not necessarily associated with a complaint or challenge the field might be having -- but we want to refresh that technology," Fuller said. He told legislators there's been 63 improvements to the M4 since it was first fielded in 1991
"This (competition) is another iteration of improvements," he said. "We want to see through a full and open competition is there something better? That's what this competition will be doing for our individual carbine."
After competition, he said, the Army would evaluate what comes out of that and measure it against the current M4 to build a business case for making the investment to replace it.
Currently, the Army has 500,000 M4s in its inventory, and right now the Army is working to upgrade some 140,000 of those to the M4A1 model, which is fully automatic, and includes a heavier barrel to allow for an increased sustained rate of fire without overheating and ambidextrous controls.