Corps Moves to Reduce Armor Burden

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Note to insurgents: hit the treadmill. The Marines are about to get a few steps quicker.

Reacting to injuries caused by over weighted body armor and security improvements in some combat zones, the Marine Corps is adjusting the way it equips Leathernecks in the field with personal protective equipment.

The service is shifting the decision making down the chain of command and instituting a graduated armor scale in the coming weeks for the promise of a lighter load to reduce injuries and hopefully quicken the feet of Marines in the field.

The first move, effective immediately, will push control to lieutenant colonels in deciding what amount of personal protective equipment Marines will wear for a given mission.

"Recognizing that body armor is modular and scalable, [we'll] try and leverage that by empowering our commanders to make the appropriate decision with regards to what composition of body armor their Marines will wear," said Maj. Tom Wood, infantry advocate for the plans, policies and operations branch of Marine Corps headquarters in Washington.

Previously, the decision for the body armor composition Marines wore into the field rested in the hands of colonels. The Corps hopes devolved decision making to the equivalent of battalion commanders will translate to a more flexible policy.

"Our battalion and squadron commanders are really the right individuals to make the decision with regards to balancing weight versus protection in a given operating environment," Wood told Military.com in an exclusive interview.

Wood trumpeted "increased tactical mobility" as a key justification for the new move.

"What you are going to see, undoubtedly, is the ability of the average Marine to move quicker and enhance his tactical mobility and thereby the unit can move from point to point quicker," Wood said.

Combatant commanders will still have the authority to issue theater- or region-wide guidance on the level of personal protective equipment, but Wood hopes that "the reduced level of violence of this new authority may help stir some discussion between Marine force commanders in Iraq and their joint force commander supervisors."

In January of last year, Corps commanders in Iraq were pushing to shed the body armor load of their grunts by making neck guards, groin protectors, side plates and even helmets optional in some areas of Iraq. But they were shut down by higher-level Army commanders who were unconvinced the threat had diminished enough to justify the new armor edict.

As more Leathernecks deployed to Afghanistan, with its high altitude battlefields and rural geography, the Corps quietly began letting grunts wear light-weight plate carriers instead of the bulky Modular Tactical Vest, exchanging protection for pounds as the strategic environment dictated.

Potentially an even more drastic change is a forthcoming move by the Corps to create a graduated system of personal protective equipment that will allow Marines in the field to quickly move between different body armor configurations.

Wood explained the so-called "armor protection levels" are being modeled after the MOPP -- mission orientated protective posture -- gear levels that Marines are familiar with in relation to nuclear, biological and chemical attack protective gear. Currently, the Corps is drafting a proposal to create four APLs.

We want to "standardize that across the Marine Corps ... so that a commander can rapidly disseminate what his chosen body armor protection level or posture is for his forces," Wood said.

It's not new gear, just a new mindset. The four levels will incorporate the small-arms protective insert plate carrier and the modular tactical vest already in use.

Wood acknowledged that complaints from Marines in the field, bolstered by a growing litany of injuries related to gear, played a significant role in prompting these changes.

"We needed to get away from the one size fits all mentality of 'you are going to go out with all your kit,' " Wood said. "Marines have become very, very comfortable operating with all their gear, but there are some body injuries that have occurred that we are just now starting to get our arms around in terms of long-term damage to the human body."

He said neck, shoulder and back injuries are the most common, but did not provide figures as to the seriousness or frequency of the injuries.

Wood said heat considerations -- unavoidable in places like Iraq and Afghanistan where temperatures routinely climb above 100 degrees in the summer months -- also factored into the decision.

And besides, walking around like some bulked-up Storm Trooper in head-to-toe armor makes it tough to win hearts and minds in a war that hinges on separating the population from the insurgents.

"There are times and places where a Marine who is less kitted up poses less of a civil, informational or psychological threat to the people that he is attempting to engage with," Wood said.

As a result of their own success, Marines are spending a lot more time in places like that. The tough part is figuring how to dress for it.

-- Bryan Mitchell

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