Infantry: Let Me Free to Be Speedy


August 6, 2007: There's a growing demand, from troops and combat commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq, for permission to go into action wearing less armor. The helmet, protective vest and bullet proof plates add up to a bulky ensemble that restricts movement, and adds over twenty pounds to what the infantry are carrying. The troops know, from experience, that there are situations were lightness and flexibility are more critical than being partially bulletproof. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) commandos have long had the option of wearing less, or no, armor. SOCOM planning can take into account the need for speed and flexibility, but for regular combat units, commanders risk their careers if someone is killed or wounded because they were not wearing all their body armor.

What irritates the troops is that they know some guys have been hit because they were slowed down by the armor. The bulk of the protective vest makes it difficult to climb in and out of vehicles, or buildings (going through a window, or across rubble). In situations like this, that extra few seconds getting around, gives the enemy an opportunity to get a shot off, or toss a grenade. But these problems mean nothing to the politicians and media pundits back home.

SOCOM is able to fight off the politicians and media, partly because most of their operations are secret (no media allowed.) It's not that the media wouldn't love to rake SOCOM over the coals for "sending troops into combat without body armor," but they just haven't had a good opportunity yet. When this does happen (it's not a matter of if), SOCOM will trot out the stats and testimonials from stern combat veterans about how they know best. That might even work.

Over the last two decades, the marines and infantry have become better trained and more capable. These troops are increasingly using the same exotic equipment, and techniques, as the elite SOCOM commandos. This is a development that has not made much of an impression on the politicians and media. This is largely because "conventional wisdom" changes very slowly. The conventional wisdom still thinks of U.S. soldiers as unwilling conscripts, even though there's been an all-volunteer force for 35 years. The media is beginning accept that volunteer angle, but is slow in getting into all the ramifications. One of those is the need to respect the professional judgment of the troops. If that means appreciating why some operations should be undertaken without body armor, then let them do it. This change of attitude won't happen anytime soon. Jumping on generals because a bad decision led to casualties is too good a story to pass up, true or not.




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