USMC allows troops more leeway on body armor in Afghanistan

Marines Scale Back Vests in Afghan Fight
September 09, 2009|by Kimberly Johnson

Marines Scale Back Vests in Afghan Fight

DARVESHAN, Afghanistan -- Marine Corps command in Southern Afghanistan is scaling back protective body armor vest requirements in a move that trades less protection for improved mobility.

The decision by commanders to allow Marines to dress down their "scalable plate carrier" body armor to essential ballistic plates is as much to let them to combat extreme temperatures as it is to empower them with the mobility to take on Taliban insurgents, according to one top infantry officer.

The heat was the major factor for the Marines based in southern Helmand, who spend about 90 percent of their time patrolling on foot, explained 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines Commander Lt. Col. Christian Cabaniss.

Marines still wear the same plates, but for certain duties may now remove additional vest features, such as the cumbersome neck guard and groin protection, he said.

"What it does do is let heat escape,” Cabaniss said, then added. "When temperatures are around 130 degrees, heat is a major issue for me.”

The result is that in the months since their June deployment, Marines are getting used to the drastic temperatures and heat casualties are fewer, he said.

It was only about a year ago that the Corps turned to the lighter, Eagle Industries-made SPC vest after Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway publically panned the bulkier modular tactical vest during a visit with deployed troops.

"For the most part, we think the [SPC] vest has particular application in Afghanistan because, once again, if you're climbing up and down mountains you want to be protected, but you don't want to be weighed down so much that you're just going to be sapped," Conway said last year.

The decision to scale back on body armor doesn't apply to all Marines across the board, and it doesn't come without some additional risk.

"I was willing to accept a little bit of risk for fragmentation," Cabaniss said. "The bullet stopping power is all still there. But to me the heat was a greater threat. So in balancing, I've authorized that when they do foot mobile patrols they can wear a little less."

"I make decisions about body armor based on the mission and the threat to the Marines, and it's worked," Cabaniss explained.

Levels of body armor Marines wear is considered "mission specific," according to Maj. Thomas Garnett, executive officer for 2/8.

"At this point, our battalion commander has his policy of, if you're going to be in a MRAP [mine-resistant armor vehicle], doing missions where you're not going to be out foot mobile, then wearing more armor makes sense. They're air conditioned, and why wouldn't you want to wear something if you don't have to get out and be walking around a lot. It just gives you a little more protection," Garnett said.

"As far as a small-arms round hitting you, you have the exact same coverage where you wear your plates," Garnett said. The SPC's design and fabric allow increased ranges of movement, including the ability to easily swivel necks and heads, "which you need when you're out doing dismounted operations," he said.

Before deploying, the battalion Marines thought they would all be wearing the modular tactical vest, so everyone trained in them.

"It wasn't well liked," Garnett said. Marines on foot patrols routinely have to run from position to position, a task made more cumbersome by the bulkier MTV.

"The Marines are much more comfortable" in the SPC, he said. "Honestly, if you look at total weight difference, it's probably not that drastic for a fully combat-loaded Marine. It's more of the ability to let heat escape from your body out of a little bit more of an opening up towards your neck."

Improved mobility also means you don't have to put in as much physical effort to move, he said.

"Having a Kevlar turtleneck on, it's just not the most comfortable thing in the world," he added.

The SPC makes all the difference. "We've had guys walk 20 kilometers in all that gear and not one heat casualty," Garnett said.

Some Marines, however, like the vest for simple reasons.

"I like the plate carrier because I can tie my own shoes," said Cpl Evan Snead, an MRAP driver. "But it doesn't disperse the weigh like a MTV." Drivers such as Snead, and gunners, typically are all issued the MTV, he said. "I'm a walking Hesco barrier right now."

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