|WASHINGTON, Feb. 1, 2006 Three soldiers just back from Iraq -- including two who credit personal and vehicle armor with saving their lives -- traveled to Capitol Hill today to tell Congress that when it comes to protecting troops, more isn't always better.
"We're here to say we're pretty happy with what we have," Brig. Gen. Karl Horst, the 3rd Infantry Division's assistant division commander for maneuver, told the American Forces Press Service before appearing at today's House Armed Services Committee's Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee hearing.
While welcoming improvements in the systems that protect troops and their vehicles, Horst said it's a misconception that it's possible to fully protect U.S. troops. "What we do is an inherently dangerous business," he said. "There are no silver bullets, and there are no protective bubbles that you can put us in."
Providing better personal and vehicle protection has a "Catch 22" factor, Horst noted. Insurgents will adapt to improved armor by using bigger bullets. And because enhanced equipment is typically heavier and bulkier than what it replaces, it can actually hamper troops' ability to operate in combat, he said.
"You must have a reasonable expectation about the level of protection you can provide without compromising the mission," Horst said. "There are no absolutes. There is no 100-percent solution. We will continue to work toward 100 percent, but we will never get there, because if you build a bigger (protective) plate, the bad guy figures out that he needs a bigger bullet to penetrate the bigger plate."
Horst has good reason to be happy with the protection his up-armored Humvee provided when it was hit by a roadside bomb in early January. The blast, which sent quarter-inch ball bearings flying into his windshield and destroyed the M1114 vehicle, never touched the crew compartment. Horst and three crewmembers walked away without a scratch.
"I am absolutely crediting the protection of the M1114 with saving my life," he said. "Had I not been in an up-armored Humvee, those 24 quarter-inch ball bearings would have come through the windshield like a shotgun blast."
Army Sgt. Anthony Dowden shares Horst's appreciation for the personal protection he wore while deployed to Baghdad with the 3rd ID's C Company, 164th Armor. Dowden was standing in the hatch of an M1 Abrams tank making observations during a patrol when a sniper's round hit him in the chest last March, stopped by the small-arms protective inserts in his protective vest.
"It felt like one of Mark McGwire's home-run baseballs," said Dowden said, referring to the now-retired Oakland A's and St. Louis Cardinals slugger. He was knocked off his feet and fell into the turret, but suffered only a bruised kidney from the blast. After one night in the hospital, Dowden returned to his unit, and he was back on the street conducting patrols within three days of the attack.
Dowden said he has no doubt that his protective vest saved his life, and he said he believes many Americans think U.S. troops don't have the protection they need. "They say that we don't have the right armor, or that we're not getting it fast enough," Dowden said. "But if I didn't have it, I probably wouldn't be here. It saved my life."
Army Sgt. 1st Class Jaime Wells, who's served as both a light-infantry and mechanized soldier in Iraq, said troops are confident in their protective gear because they've seen it tested in combat. "And a soldier going to combat with confidence in his gear can do anything," Wells told the subcommittee.
Improved systems could be a big benefit for some soldiers, like those who stand in a tower for 12-hour shifts pulling security duties. But for other soldiers, like those who patrol Iraq's streets on foot, where they need to walk and maneuver easily, the added weight and bulkiness of the improved body armor could be detrimental, he said.
The third-generation body armor the Army is looking at, which at 31 pounds weighs twice as much as the current vest, could actually interfere with soldiers' ability to operate, Wells said. "Let's look at the weight," he said. "And what is this taking away tactically from the soldier in terms of speed and maneuverability that can have an adverse effect?"
Wells recalled the evolution of body armor, from his first deployment to Iraq when he and many of his fellow soldiers wore protective vests with no SAPI plates, to today's enhanced body armor systems. To reduce troops' vulnerability, front and back protective plates were added to the vests, then slide plates, then shoulder and crotch protections, he said.
"What happens now, when that's all covered, and soldiers we are losing are getting leg or arm wounds?" he asked. "Are we going to armor those too?"
Ultimately, some level of risk has to be accepted, Wells said. "This is not an easy job and nobody, including President Bush, has ever said what we are doing is easy or not dangerous," he said. "There is just an acceptable risk that sometimes you have to take."
Wells also expressed concern that if enhanced equipment is fielded to the battlefield too quickly, some deployed soldiers could find themselves using equipment they've never had an opportunity to properly train with. For example, different body armor can affect the way a soldier holds and fires a weapon, he said. "To be successful, you need to train on the equipment you're using before being in full conflict," Wells said.
The soldiers agreed that the Army and Defense Department should continue efforts to improve body armor for deployed troops. In doing so, Horst said, it's important to keep two questions in mind: "How much is enough and how much is too much? And what do you need to be able to accomplish your mission?"
Ideally, he said, units should deploy with a full complement of personal protective gear, and unit leaders and noncommissioned officers should identify the best configuration for their troops, based on their location and mission.
"What you need is a menu approach to the level of protection that we use, based on the mission you have asked us to accomplish, the enemy that we are operating against, the environment we are operating against and the duration of the mission," Horst said.
The key to success in Iraq and on the battlefield ultimately boils down to something far beyond protective gear, he said. "It's the synergy of other four things that leads to success: the best-quality soldiers in the world, best-trained soldiers in the world, best equipment in the world and best small-unit leaders in the world," he said.