Saturday, January 07, 2006

Pentagon Study Links Fatalities to Body Armor

This is pretty sickening. From The New York Times:

A secret Pentagon study has found that as many as 80 percent of the marines who have been killed in Iraq from wounds to the upper body could have survived if they had had extra body armor. Such armor has been available since 2003, but until recently the Pentagon has largely declined to supply it to troops despite calls from the field for additional protection, according to military officials.

The ceramic plates in vests now worn by the majority of troops in Iraq cover only some of the chest and back. In at least 74 of the 93 fatal wounds that were analyzed in the Pentagon study of marines from March 2003 through June 2005, bullets and shrapnel struck the marines' shoulders, sides or areas of the torso where the plates do not reach.

Thirty-one of the deadly wounds struck the chest or back so close to the plates that simply enlarging the existing shields "would have had the potential to alter the fatal outcome," according to the study, which was obtained by The New York Times.

For the first time, the study by the military's medical examiner shows the cost in lives from inadequate armor, even as the Pentagon continues to publicly defend its protection of the troops.

In one sense, it doesn't surprise me. You could say that this is an example of an entrenched, military bureaucracy that either ignores, or is slow to react to rapid developments and changes in warfare. This was also seen at the beginning of Vietnam, when the military started shipping the first M-16 rifles to combat troops. U.S. troops were never really given proper instructions, nor cleaning kits to maintain their M-16s in the field. There were also problems with the locking bolt cover being made out of regular steel, rather than stainless steel, causing it to rust and jam the rifle. There were also problems with the type of powder used in the ammunition. It took the military several years to work out the kinks in the design. I think the problem here was that the Pentagon bureaucracy pushed this rifle through the military forces without any real field testing. The issuing of the M-16 rifle to combat troops was the field testing. And when problems started to surface regarding the M-16's unreliability, the Pentagon bureaucracy ignored those problems. I think we're watching the same problem evolve with the body armor in Iraq. The Pentagon certainly provided enough original testing for the amor, without actually taking it into combat, before issuing the equipment to combat troops. But the nature of warfare changes with each war. The war in Iraq has become a low-tech insurgency, made up of roadside bombs, and quick hit-and-run tactics by the insurgents. The roadside bombs have become more powerful than the homemade bombs used by the VC in Vietnam. Thus, the body armor has not been adequate for the combat troops. And the military has ignored the problem with the armor. Now here's the real fun of the story:

Officials have said they are shipping the best armor to Iraq as quickly as possible. At the same time, they have maintained that it is impossible to shield forces from the increasingly powerful improvised explosive devices used by insurgents in Iraq. Yet the Pentagon's own study reveals the equally lethal threat of bullets.

The vulnerability of the military's body armor has been known since the start of the war, and is part of a series of problems that have surrounded the protection of American troops. Still, the Marine Corps did not begin buying additional plates to cover the sides of their troops until September, when it ordered 28,800 sets, Marine officials acknowledge.

The Pentagon knew about the problem with the body armor. And yet, they refused to do anything about it.

I think a part of this problem is that the Pentagon is still stuck within its Cold War mindset, where the bureaucracy still believes that technology will solve any type of military problem. Think about it. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld came in with the notion that the military could fight their wars with "smaller," "lighter," and "better" forces which overemphasized the use of technology. Pentagon bureaucrats salivated over the idea of the military purchasing the latest, greatest, and most expensive hardware--Seawolf submarines, B-2 stealth bombers, Paladin artillery, F-22 superfighters. Of course, the defense contractors are more than happy to give the Pentagon the most expensive hardware--especially with the cost overruns--since it boosts the contractors prices, profit margins, and stock prices. But the problem is that some of this hardware was designed to fight the Soviets during the Cold War--where technological superiority of American forces were to counteract the numerical superiority of the Soviet forces.

Now we have a situation that is completely different. American forces are engaged in "low tech" warfare--guerrilla wars, insurgencies, police actions, occupations. These are conflicts where the opposition understands the U.S. military's over-reliance on technological superiority, and has adapted to avoid direct confrontation with U.S. forces. Avoid direct confrontation with U.S. troops, and you eliminate the U.S. technological advantage of directing overwhelming firepower against your position. That is what we're seeing in Iraq--specifically roadside bombs, and quick hit-and-run attacks on individual units, before melting away. The military has not adapted to this type of warfare--a Seawolf submarine is not going to help an individual soldier, whose body armor can't protect him from a roadside bomb. Continuing on:

The Army, which has the largest force in Iraq, is still deciding what to purchase, according to Army procurement officials. They said the Army was deciding among various sizes of plates to give its 130,000 soldiers, adding that they hoped to issue contracts this month.

Additional forensic studies by the Armed Forces Medical Examiner's unit that were obtained by The Times indicate that about 340 American troops have died solely from torso wounds.

Military officials said they had originally decided against using the extra plates because they were concerned they added too much weight to the vests or constricted the movement of soldiers. Marine Corps officials said the findings of the Pentagon study caused field commanders to override those concerns in the interest of greater protection.

"As the information became more prevalent and aware to everybody that in fact these were casualty sites that they needed to be worried about, then people were much more willing to accept that weight on their body," said Maj. Wendell Leimbach, a body armor specialist with Marine Corps Systems Command, the corps procurement unit.

The Pentagon has been collecting the data on wounds since the beginning of the war in March 2003 in part to determine the effectiveness of body armor. The military's medical examiner, Dr. Craig T. Mallak, told a military panel in 2003 that the information "screams to be published." But it would take nearly two years.

The Marine Corps said it asked for the data in August 2004; but it needed to pay the medical examiner $107,000 to have the data analyzed. Marine officials said financing and other delays had resulted in the study's not starting until December 2004. It finally began receiving the information by June 2005. The shortfalls in bulletproof vests are just one of the armor problems the Pentagon continues to struggle with as the war in Iraq approaches the three-year mark, The Times has found in a continuing examination of the military procurement system.

Here again, Pentagon planners love the idea of purchasing high-tech, expensive, "candied" weapons, but are not willing to spend money for improving low-tech weapons and protection. I'd also say that the Pentagon planners are using studies and data from previous wars--Desert Storm 1, Panama, Grenada, Vietnam, Korea, and maybe even the Second World War. While it may be important to look at the history of how American soldiers fought in previous wars, it is probably more important to look at how the current soldiers are fighting, and what they want from the military. In other words, the Pentagon needs to create marketing surveys of what the individual soldier needs, and quickly adapt their technology to satisfy those needs. Right now, the bureaucracy is slow to change and adapt to what the soldier needs, claiming it will take two years to finish their studies. That is way too long of a wait.

Perhaps the Pentagon needs to create a "fast track," procurement system for developing and distributing low-tech equipment to the troops in the field. One possibility is to allow field commanders greater discretion to adapt equipping their forces in a "quick-and-dirty" trial basis, then allow the commanders and soldiers to review how these adaptations perform in the field. If there is a problem with body armor, then allow individual field commanders the option of providing better armor to their soldiers on a trial basis, then see what the results are. If the results are more positive for the troops in the field, then start pushing this through the regular army. In other words, adapt quickly to the changing nature of war.

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