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Corps answers Congress on body armor, gear

Apr. 22, 2013 - 07:53AM   |  
Army 2nd Lt. Chelsea Adams, right, helps Pvt. 1st Class Cheryl Rogers get into the new Generation III Female Improved Outer Tactical Vest at Fort Stewart, Ga., in November. The Marine Corps will continue to rely on its new Scalable Plate Carrier.
Army 2nd Lt. Chelsea Adams, right, helps Pvt. 1st Class Cheryl Rogers get into the new Generation III Female Improved Outer Tactical Vest at Fort Stewart, Ga., in November. The Marine Corps will continue to rely on its new Scalable Plate Carrier. (Cpl. Emily Knitter / Army)
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Lawmakers want to know how the Marine Corps and Army plan to continue improving troop protection in a postwar environment.

During an April 11 hearing on the services’ budget requests for individual equipment, members of the House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee focused on the need to continue research and development of better equipment, zeroing in on body armor, uniforms and efforts to lighten the load.

Body armor

While the Army pushes ahead with the fielding of female-friendly body armor, the top Marine procurement official said the Corps has no plans to do the same.

“We will not sacrifice protection for comfort,” said Brig Gen. Eric M. Smith, head of the Marine Corps Capabilities Directorate.

The service is satisfied with the performance of its new Scalable Plate Carrier, he said. The plate carrier offers Marines a lightweight alternative for hot environments, high-speed missions or areas where less fragmentation protection is needed. It is highly adjustable and can be tailored to the measurements of any Marine — short or tall, wide or narrow.

Meanwhile, the Army will field 600 sets of female body armor to Afghanistan in July and August, said Brig. Gen. Paul A. Ostrowski, the head of Program Executive Office, Soldier. Nineteen sets are already in theater. The new armor, which comes in eight sizes, brings total weight down from about 31 pounds to about 25 pounds.

“From this point forward, we will always deploy with female body armor,” he said.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., applauded the Army’s efforts, saying the development of female body armor becomes increasingly important as the military moves forward with its plan to open more military occupational specialties — possibly including some ground combat roles — to women.

Lightening the load

Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, the subcommittee chairman, and Sanchez, both said the 150-pound loads often carried by Marines and soldiers make them less mobile and more susceptible to musculoskeletal injuries.

Brig. Gen. Frank L. Kelley, head of Marine Corps Systems Command, cited the Marine Corps Load Effect Assessment Program as one way his command is gathering data — and input from individual Marines — to help streamline equipment. The command is trying to strike a careful balance between protection and maneuverability — both critical for survival, he said.

Ostrowski said the Army continues to investigate new nanotechnologies that could be used to make lighter body armor capable of stopping powerful projectiles.

At Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, researchers have developed a 6-inch disk that is about half to one-third the weight of traditional ballistic plates used in body armor. It is a promising development that could translate into a lighter load, he said.

Marine and Army officials agree that focusing solely on gear isn’t enough. The uncertainty of resupply means that if you trim a pound of a Marine or soldier’s kit, he will likely add it back on by carrying more food, water or ammunition.

Troops will carry less if they have confidence in resupply, Ostrowski said.

Uniforms

Lawmakers questioned Army procurement leaders about needing better camouflage.

Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., cited a September report from the Government Accountability Office that was highly critical of what it called a disjointed approach to camouflage development across most of the services. It singled out the Marine Pattern woodland and desert camouflage as one of the few success stories.

Despite having a superior pattern, the Marine Corps sees room for improvement and is developing tropical uniforms to better suit the climate in the Asia-Pacific region.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, there was never a problem with uniforms drying, Smith said. But as more Marines began rotating through the Jungle Warfare Training Center in Okinawa, Japan, it became clear that existing cammies are too heavy for the tropics.

The Marine Corps Tropical Combat Uniform, as acquisition officials have titled the project, likely will feature the same MARPAT design as the Corps’ utility uniform, but it will incorporate fabrics that dry in about 20 minutes. No timeline has been laid out for their fielding.

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