WASHINGTON -- Men and women are now equal on the battlefield but that does not mean one size fits all when it comes to gear.
The integration of women into all military combat positions -- including elite special operations -- is putting increased pressure on the Army and Marine Corps to solve issues of ill-fitting body armor and is pushing a minor revolution in smaller-size options in the life-saving apparel.
Both services are fielding thousands of sets of newly sized armor designed to better fit the female form just as recruitment begins for the gender-neutral infantry ordered by Defense Secretary Ash Carter in December. The new female soldiers and Marines could begin service as early as this fall.
The Army has added eight new sizes to its body armor to accommodate women, said Lt. Gen. Michael Williamson, the principle military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology.
"Anybody who's worn a piece of body armor knows that it's inconvenient enough without being [unable] to appropriately size it," Williamson told Congress this week. "In the design of our new protective equipment, we've worked very hard as you look at both the torso, the hard armor protection, the extremities with the soft armor, and the sizing so that we can fit both women and smaller male soldiers appropriately."
The difference in female body armor is not just about size. The anatomy of women also called for a redesign of how the gear fits, Williams said.
"There's a level of complexity here, so it's not just being smaller, it's proportions," he said. "That's why there are so many additional sizes."
About 5,500 sets of the new Army body armor has already been fielded and the service said it hopes to eventually bring that up to 7,200 sets in the near future. Meanwhile, the Marine Corps said it has fielded 3,800 sets of its new body armor so far.
The new Marine sizes will allow the service to fit the smallest 2 percent of its women for the first time. They were the product of a study of female physiology that wrapped up just as the combat integration of women was decided, said Brig. Gen. Joe Shrader, the commander of Marine Corps Systems Command.
"The timing of it was fortuitous that it ended along with this decision that was made," Shrader said. "It led us to look at those extra small stature sizes and led us to purchase … the 3,800 extra sets that were down in that 2 percentile range."
Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., said the military services in the past had been unresponsive to the gear needs of female servicemembers and had allowed "alarming" disadvantages for women who were forced into male-centric armor.
"One of the more alarming things I learned after the Army first began to develop body armor for women was … they were wearing the male version [and] that often it compromised a woman's ability to lift her arm appropriately to fire," Tsongas said. "So there are real risks to not moving ahead in a very expeditious way especially given the opening of all these combat positions to women."
Body armor might not be the last gear issue that needs to be ironed out as women move into combat. Shoes could be next, according to Tsongas.
"We know that in the area of shoes that are issued to our men and women there hasn't been a lot of thought about what a woman's foot might need given the demands of what she needs to do," she said.