Infantry: More Body Armor and Lower Casualties


January 12, 2006: The latest media created military scandal revolves around accusations of inadequate body armor for the troops. What these breathless accusations missed was that combat troops are already carrying too much weight in combat. Weight is a matter of life and death. Even the most fit troops are slowed down by trying to fight while carrying up to a hundred pounds of gear.

Sounds implausible? Let's do the math. The boots and basic clothing are less than ten pounds. This includes goggles, knee pads and the like. But then you have 24 pounds for current armor (protective vest and helmet), another 4-5 pounds of water (mostly water) and food (usually quick energy munchies for guys who may be facing twelve hours or more dodging bullets and bombs). At this point, you are carrying nearly 40 pounds. But to fight, you need weapons, equipment and ammo. Each trooper usually carries seven magazines, that's nearly twenty pounds, plus another 12-15 pounds for the rifle, bayonet, flashlight, first aid kit and some grenades. We're up to seventy pounds. Kind of makes you feel tired just thinking about it. When the temperature is over a hundred degrees, just standing around in all this will get you down.

But there's more. The fire teams, of four troops, are based on a light machinegun carried by one of the men, which goes into action with about a thousand rounds of ammo (70 pounds worth for a 7.62mm, half that weight for 5.56mm.) This load is split between other members of the team. So everyone is carrying another 10-20 pounds worth of munitions. Now we're up to over 80 pounds, and we're not finished yet. You also have the night vision equipment and other weapons, like rocket launchers (for blasting buildings the enemy is holed up in), mortar rounds (if there is a mortar attached to your unit), a tripod for a machine-gun, a night sight for a machine-gun, spare barrel for the machine-gun, breeching tools, and so on. You might also be carrying a radio, GPS. We are now over a hundred pounds and climbing. Or not climbing. Even a well conditioned young guy has a hard time jumping around, much less climbing, with that load. People in vehicles have it a little easier, as they don't have to carry all the ammo and extra weapons. But they are still going to be jumping out of a truck wearing fifty or more pounds of stuff. As a practical matter, troops try to drop as much weight as they can before getting into a fight. But, as you can see, there's not much stuff you can do without. So running around, under fire, carrying 50-60 pounds, is pretty common, and exhausting.

To the troops running around and fighting with all this weight, every ounce counts. Their opponents are carrying 30 pounds (clothing weapons and ammo) at most, and are more nimble as a result. While the armor is a lifesaver, the Department of Defense is buying new armor that saves a few pounds. New assault rifles will be a little lighter. But there's not much you can do about ammo, for there's often not enough when the going gets rough. The weight problem is an old one, and only gets a lot of attention when there's a war on. This time around it's worse, because there is finally body armor that will stop rifle bullets. This armor is heavier, and the troops don't mind that kind of weight, up to a point.

What the pundits and politicians are getting into, are new forms of body armor that offer more protection. For example, you can add arm and leg protection (from pistol bullets and bomb fragments) for another ten pounds. You can add another ten pounds if you want some more protection for the torso. But for an infantryman running and shooting, the need is for less weight, not more. Special Forces troops will sometimes go into action without body armor, because they know speed and nimbleness will protect them more effectively.

Here's what maximum armor looks like (add all the ammo, water, grenades and so on for the combat zone version). This armor rig weighs nearly fifty pounds, and will save lives. From 10-20 percent of the troops killed would have survived with more armor. But commanders have to consider how many would be killed because of the added weight. Those who have not run around in the heat, carrying weapons and trying to stay alert, cannot comprehend what a difference weight can make. This is why so much effort has gone into making the armor lighter and more flexible. The current protective vests have played a major role in keeping combat losses down. These casualties are the lowest of any campaign in military history. For example, the loss rates are less than half those of Vietnam, where protective vests were first widely used (and widely not worn because of the weight and heat).

Keeping casualties down is an emotional issue, and body armor is seen as the key solution to saving lives. It isn't. Training, leadership and the physical capabilities of the troops are more important. And these physical capabilities are enormously constrained by weight carried. This is not a sexy subject, and historians and journalists rarely pay any attention to it. But when you ask the troops, especially those fighting in a hot climate, weight matters.


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