The Marine Corps has issued thousands of new body armor vests that are lighter, more comfortable and allow more freedom of movement than the current vest, but offer less ballistic protection than the Corps' standard-issued armor.
The so-called "scalable plate carrier" uses the same enhanced small arms protective plates and Kevlar ballistic inserts as the Corps' Interceptor body armor and modular tactical vest, but in a more streamlined, less bulky package than vests issued to most Marines.
So far the Corps has fielded about 5,500 of the plate carriers, made by Eagle Industries of Fenton, Mo., throughout the three Marine Expeditionary Forces, but the vest is primarily intended for Leathernecks deployed to the western Pacific region and parts of Afghanistan, officials with Marine Corps Systems Command said.
In February, Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway fired a shot across SysCom's bow in an interview with Fox News during his trip to Iraq and other Middle East war zones. Then, he wondered why the office responsible for equipping Marines chose the current MTV -- which Leathernecks have nicknamed the "Hesco" after the sand-filled wire-and-burlap barriers that protect remote bases from enemy fire.
He then ordered SysCom to come up with a new design, even though the Corps had already shipped 84,000 MTVs to the war zone.
"We put the last 25,000 [MTVs] on hold, and I asked, 'How is it that we got to this point? What was our pre-selection survey like and wear test like to the extent that we've got this thing now in large volume,' " Conway said during an Aug. 18 interview. "Frankly, we're hard pressed to understand."
Despite the plate carrier order, nearly six months after the commandant's request SysCom still hasn't followed through with a replacement for the MTV.
"We are currently gathering data and information from Marines returning from OIF and OEF," said SysCom spokeswoman, Capt. Geraldine Carey, in an Aug. 7 email statement to Military.com. "Once all the data is collected and analyzed, we will approach industry for possible new designs and or changes to the current body armor."
The new plate carriers are essentially a slimmed-down version of the MTV, with larger arm holes, thinner shoulder straps and a shorter chest profile. The reduction in weight and lower silhouette of the plate carriers "would allow greater mobility with reduced thermal stress in high elevations, thick vegetation and tropical environments," SysCom said.
In 2004, the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit purchased plate carriers for its Marines during a deployment to the scorching deserts of southern Afghanistan. Since then, many troops have favored the uncomplicated plate carriers over their more weighty counterparts, which incorporate ballistic yokes, chin guards, groin protectors and various ballistic add-ons, depending on the mission.
"Now the Marines who are wearing [the MTV] repetitively don't like it so much," Conway explained. "It is heavier. It gives a little more protection -- that is one of the net positives with it. We still need a lighter vest that gives us the same amount of protection."
In March 2007, the Corps received an "urgent needs statement" from field commanders requesting the plate carriers for forces in Afghanistan and units deployed to Asia -- where hot, jungle environments make wearing the 30-pound MTV impractical. Since then, the Corps made plans to buy nearly 10,000 plate carriers and has made them available to vehicle crewmen as well.
"For the most part, we think the 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 of the SPC vest.
The issue of body armor and the balance between ballistic protection and mobility has been a controversial one, particularly since casualties mounted in Iraq from powerful roadside bombs and armor-piercing sniper rounds. As the blast injuries increased, the services added on new ballistic protection to their vests.
But the boost in protection came at the cost of comfort and weight; some vests topped 35 pounds with various accessories and stronger plates. That prompted some commanders to ask for leeway in how they outfit their troops, given the security environment and the type of terrain units operated in.
"I like the idea of modularization as long as you had some pieces that you could add or subtract" from the carrier, said David Woroner, a body armor expert and president of Survival Consultants International. "Personal protection should be just that, it's a personal choice at some point."
In January, the deputy commander for Marines in Iraq, Maj. Gen. John Allen, told Military.com he was on the verge of allowing his troops in Anbar province -- which had seen a steep reduction in violence and roadside bomb casualties -- to strip down their armor, leaving their chin guards, groin protectors and side plates at the base while on patrol.
That prompted a sharp rebuke from superiors in Baghdad who still believed the risk from IEDs was enough to keep Marines buttoned up behind the MTV's full ensemble.
But now it seems the restrictions have softened.
"A lot has to be left to the commander. Threats will vary in different locations," explained Conway, who wore the SPC during a recent trip to the Middle East. "You may have a sniper threat in one place and a shrapnel threat in another. You may have a commander whose force mainly rides to the fight and another one that has to climb up the side of mountains."
"That we've got these various [types of armor vest] is marvelous," Conway said.
-- Christian (with help from contributor Kimberly Johnson)