Army looks to lighten load for Soldiers in Afghanistan
October 15, 2009
By PEO Soldier
FORT BELVOIR, Va. (Army News Service, Oct. 15, 2009) -- The Army is poised to introduce a plate-carrier vest to provide Soldiers more lightweight gear in the challenging operational environments of Afghanistan.
An $18.6 million contract for 57,000 plate carriers was awarded Oct. 8, to KDH Defense Systems. The fielding schedule calls for the first plate carriers to be delivered to the Army in December after testing and be fielded to Soldiers soon thereafter. Deliveries under the contract are to be completed in March 2010.
Program Executive Office Soldier has worked closely with the U.S. Army Infantry School, the Army Test and Evaluation Command, North Carolina State University, the Army Research Laboratory's Survivability/Lethality Analysis Directorate, and the Rapid Equipping Force to assess the performance of commercial-off-the-shelf plate carriers.
The objective of these assessments was to gain a thorough understanding of plate-carrier performance, PEO Solider officials said, both from the perspective of Soldiers who have put a number of plate carriers through rigorous exercises and through the perspective of scientists and engineers who have examined ballistic, burn, and survivability data. This information was used to inform Army leadership of plate-carrier capabilities and to refine requirements for requests for proposal from industry.
While this work was ongoing, PEO Soldier received final direction in September from headquarters, Department of the Army on what the Army's plate-carrier quantity should be. Once that decision was made, a procurement strategy moved forward to get a plate-carrier capability to Soldiers as expeditiously as possible, PEO Soldier officials said.
The primary objective in providing Soldiers with a plate carrier is to reduce the weight of their body armor and to significantly reduce heat stress, enhancing combat performance in extreme temperatures, PEO Soldier officials said.
The vest will carry standard hard armor plates for vital ballistic protection, but cover less of the Soldier's body than the Interceptor Body Armor system. The Army chose this solution concept, officials said, because the technology does not yet exist to make the hard and soft armor components more lightweight.
"We have listened to Soldiers, and we understand that in certain operational environments such as the mountains of Afghanistan, mobility is key to Soldiers' effectiveness against the enemy," said Brig. Gen. Peter Fuller, Program Executive Officer Soldier.
"It's a lot to ask for Soldiers to conduct missions in hilly, rocky terrain at high altitudes, wearing the full complement of body armor," Fuller said. "The plate carrier will give the commanders of those units a more lightweight alternative for their Soldiers."
The full-up plate carrier (including front and side hard armor plates) represents a weight reduction of 10 to 15 pounds compared with the complete Improved Outer Tactical Vest with front and side hard armor plates.
The plate-carrier initiative began in December 2008, when the 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, requested 1,500 plate carriers. In January, the Army asked industry to present possible designs for a plate carrier. Of 16 interested vendors, four were chosen to participate in Soldier Protection Demonstration VII, an 11-day field test in May at the Army's Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.
Three-dozen Soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., and the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vicenza, Italy, took part in SPD VII, putting eight plate-carrier vests through a variety of exercises. There were four commercial vests tested, along with the U.S. Marine Corp's Scalable Plate Carrier, the Modular Body Armor Vest used by Army Special Forces, and an IOTV with no attachments as a baseline for comparison.
The Soldiers provided exhaustive feedback - more than 10,000 pages of comments - on the form, fit, and function of each vest they tested. They wore the vests in road marches, obstacle courses, weapons familiarization, ingress/egress drills, and room-clearing exercises.
The Soldiers also tested each plate carrier's compatibility with Land Warrior, a Soldier-worn computer system that increases mission speed and effectiveness and decreases risks to the unit by providing state-of-the-art situational awareness. The results of SPD VII helped the Army define its requirement for the plate-carrier vest, while vendors' proposals formed the basis for the Army's contract award.
Following the SPD, the Army conducted ballistic and flame testing on the plate-carrier candidates to ensure that they could provide Soldiers with vital protection in theater. Those results, combined with the results of SPD VII, officials said contributed to the Army's course of action on the plate carrier.
At the same time, a plate-carrier vest was part of the kit provided to about 500 Soldiers in Afghanistan for the Soldier Load Assessment being conducted by the Army's Asymmetric Warfare Group in conjunction with the Rapid Equipping Force and PEO Soldier.
As the Army develops a longer-term solution, the plate carrier to be procured by PEO Soldier will have certain design features that Army combat developers consider critical. These include, among other features, a drag strap, ease of donning and doffing, and compatibility with Soldiers' weapons and other equipment.
"This is a major step forward in the field of body armor," Fuller said, "a plate-carrier vest designed to meet Soldiers' needs, with Soldiers' input into how it should work."
"While we continue to pursue the technology to make a lighter hard-armor plate, Soldiers will have something to give them critical protection and greater mobility at the same time."