Military Protective Gear

Two related stories this morning show the rapid innovation in technologies to protect our soldiers from injuries common on the modern battlefield and the difficulty in fielding that technology rapidly enough.

WaPo: More Armor Urged for U.S. Forces in Iraq

As insurgents continue to use improvised bombs to attack U.S. military vehicles in Iraq, officials are growing increasingly concerned that the lack of heavy armored vehicles is putting U.S. forces at risk.

Defense officials said yesterday they are working to increase the number of armored Humvees for Operation Iraqi Freedom but said the 2,000 specially armored trucks there account for only half the Army’s estimated requirements. Standard Humvees, considered utility vehicles similar to jeeps, are too vulnerable to attack, officials said.

Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday that every armored Humvee in the inventory has been sent to Iraq and more are being built. In a Pentagon briefing, Myers said the enemy’s changing tactics have highlighted the need to shore up transport vehicles.

Myers and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld also responded to concerns raised by Gen. Larry R. Ellis at Army Forces Command. Ellis wrote the Pentagon that commanders in the field have found the armored Humvee “is not providing the solution the Army hoped to achieve” and that red tape could “fail our soldier and our nation.” Ellis suggested the purchase of hundreds of eight-wheel Stryker combat vehicles instead.

Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, said yesterday it is vital to the protection of soldiers to immediately increase the number of hardened vehicles in Iraq, whether that means more armored Humvees or Strykers. “Soldiers are dying because they’re in a war zone,” Simmons said, “but the risks they face increase when the equipment they have is inadequate for the threat.”

CSM: Why US Troops Have New Shoulder Pads

As US troops struggle with ongoing violence, a newly established US Navy Combat Trauma Registry is charting casualty patterns in hopes of improving troop protection. The number of US dead in April has reached 122, with nearly 900 troops wounded.

Already, specific dangers for US forces – roadside bombs and urban warfare – are prompting swift innovations.

The military, for example, has rush ordered thousands of Kevlar shoulder guards and blastproof sunglasses. The reason? Ask Lieutenant Copeland, a US Navy combat medic officer from Gainesville, Fla., whose first taste of combat came two weeks ago. Two of his marines took shoulder injuries from bullets and shrapnel. “He’s done, he’s gone home – he can’t shoot,” Copeland says of one case. New Kevlar shoulder guards might have protected the marine and kept him on the battlefront.

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Using a prototype form until now, US Navy medical corpsmen at the Bravo Surgical Company here have detailed more than 190 trauma cases.

The new forms can be filled out on computer; some medical officers nearer the front line will hold voice recorders. “All we have is this huge database from Vietnam that … needs updating,” says US Navy Capt. Eric McDonald, chief surgeon for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. “We’re trying to answer those questions – which glasses are better, which armor, which vehicle is better – in a scientific way.”

There has been close cooperation between the US Army and the Navy, which traditionally provides medical support for the marines. “If you watch Roman Legion movies, that is where we are getting to,” says Navy Capt. John Siefert, a doctor from San Diego, Calif., referring to Kevlar shoulder guards and lower skirts on flak vests.

“I’ve seen mockups of the future warrior, and they look like [Star Wars] storm troopers,” says Cmdr. Ben Ernst, medical director of the unit, from Chillicothe, Missouri.

Trauma centers in US hospitals today are a direct outgrowth of Army medics coping with combat trauma in Vietnam. Improvements since that era – including forward surgical teams much closer to front-line action – have trimmed front-line death rates.

In the 1991 Gulf War, ceramic armor plates were used only by Special Forces; today they are standard issue.

It was Lt. Col. Kelly Bal, an orthopedic surgeon with the Army’s 82nd Airborne, who first detected the pattern of wounds to exposed shoulders.

Colonel Bal jerry-rigged a Kevlar groin protector from a typical armored vest to fit around the upper arm, says McDonald. A prototype saved a soldier. The Army quickly bought 6,000, some 2,000 of which are now being used by marines. The Marines have ordered 25,000 more shoulder protectors.

A similar story surrounds the wide use of Wiley-X sunglasses with ballistic lenses and padded frames, and toughened goggles – a direct result of blast wounds to the eyes from IEDs.

“Ideally, we would travel in hermetically sealed bubbles … but we don’t drape ourselves in this stuff [because] everything you add is a benefit, and has a cost,” says McDonald. Shoulder protectors may hamper a marksman and add a heat burden. Some ballistic glasses tend to fog in heat.

Experts are also working on a better earplug that permits frequencies like voices while protecting against the noise of a nearby grenade blast. Surgeons here also expect more coverage of neck and lower abdomen areas. “The future is mining that database,” says McDonald, “to find the places where benefits [of new measures] outweigh risks.”

Intriguing.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.