In the trenchesU.S. Army emphasizes new body armor

Published 4 January 2010

The U.S. Army wants better armor for its soldiers; weight has long been an issue with the body armor the Pentagon issues to troops, and the Pentagon has signed an $18.6-million contract with KDH Defense Systems to send 57,000 new, lighter plate carriers to Afghanistan to decrease the load soldiers carry

In the past several years, the U.S. Army has developed an advanced generation of protective ballistic plates for soldiers in what it calls the “X-Sapi” (Small-Arms Protective Insert) program. Despite buying 120,000 plates from Ceradyne and BAE Systems, it has yet to issue the gear to troops in the field — and it may not ever do so.

Aviation Week’s Paul McLeary writes that the Army’s product manager for Soldier Protective Equipment, Lt. Col. Jon Rickey, says the plates are designed to defeat an “X-threat” that has not yet fully emerged, but delivery of the plates began late this year. “We are in the middle of doing lot-acceptance testing … in case we see that threat emerge in theater.”

Rickey declines to comment on the “X-threat,” only saying that the Army is trying to get ahead of “what we believe will appear.” (Press reports and government studies speculate that the threat is higher-velocity and armor-piercing rounds.) The plates are made from the same types of materials — silicon carbide and ceramic, and high-molecular-weight polyethylene (HMW-PE) and aramid fibers — as the E-Sapi plates in use, Rickey says. “It’s just how you put it together that provides the additional capability,” he notes. At a congressional hearing last February, the extra 0.5 lb. beyond the E-Sapi’s weight that the X Sapi plates would add to a soldier’s already heavy load caused Army leaders to say they would not field the plates just yet.

The issue of protection for troops was given a big push in 2007, when Senator Jim Webb (D-Virginia), and then-Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-New York), asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to launch an investigation into the reliability of body armor worn by troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. When the report was issued last month, it focused instead on what it said were flaws in testing the new plates, as opposed to performance in the field.

The GAO was critical of the Army’s X-Sapi testing methods, but Brig. Gen. Peter Fuller, chief of Program Executive Office Soldier, says the Army is still in the testing phase, and “we are interested in taking all this data, Phase II testing, Phase III testing, additional surveillance testing — wrap[ping] it up in one report and provid[ing] it back to the Hill.”

Even with the new, sturdier, heavier plates, Rickey says, “we’ve only tapped into about 40% of where the industry can go