June 1, 2010  

In harm’s way

The body armor industry needs protecting

When the country went to war, nearly nine years ago, troops were called on to stand in harm’s way. When those service members volunteered to confront the enemy, the leadership of the nation assumed an obligation to provide them some measure of protection that could keep them safe on the battlefield. No one could guarantee 100 percent safety, but new body armor technology did allow the military for the first time in its history to field an effective personal protective system.

The body armor that was designed and produced was by no means perfect. It was considered by most to be heavy, bulky and somewhat restraining, especially for the foot soldier, but it became clear that body armor saved lives. Not only did it stop bullets, it also helped protect against the effects of roadside bomb blasts — an unanticipated benefit that has saved the lives of many.

But this good news story did not start out well. At first, there was not enough body armor for all the war fighters who required it. The Army and the Marine Corps did not plan for every soldier and Marine to be issued the ceramic plates that have turned out to be the key lifesaving component in the body armor system. When it became clear that in Iraq and Afghanistan we faced an asymmetric battlefield and every soldier was on the front line, the requirements to provide every soldier with ceramic body armor surged.

One does not have to look too far back to recall church bake sales to raise money to purchase body armor for mobilizing local National Guardsmen or Marine reservists who might otherwise not be issued this important lifesaving equipment; there just was not enough to go around.

Industry, meanwhile, responded rapidly. Facilities were acquired and equipped to manufacture large amounts of body armor and deliver it to those who needed it the most in the shortest possible time. There was not a lot of discussion of how to get it done. The military leadership said, “We need all the help we can get,” and industry delivered. Real money was invested, equipment was purchased, employees were on the job 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 364 days a year, for more than seven years, producing more than 1.2 million sets of body armor.

It is a great American story — so what’s the problem?

Those military leaders who lived through the crisis are long gone; some retired, some were reassigned. The soldiers and Marines appear to be well-protected against the threats they face on the battlefield. Current leaders who have not been sweated by the Congress or pummeled by the parents of the soldiers and Marines who wanted for body armor in the early days of the war seem to have forgotten the lesson learned. They are allowing the body armor industry to wither away.

We now have 1.4 million sets of body armor and all our soldiers and Marines who need it are equipped, so who needs a body armor industrial base? If the enemy we are confronting suddenly changes his tactics or battlefield techniques, the call will come to surge the production of body armor. We shall be told that the enemy has learned how to penetrate our armor and we need to redesign, manufacture and reissue — now.

However, the body armor plants will be closed, the furnaces cold and all the trained technicians whose specialized skills are essential to this work will be gone.

And that is exactly what is happening.

Producing body armor is a highly complex process that cannot be automated; each set takes approximately seven months to produce.

After eight years of increases in capacity, investment by industry in plant and equipment, and most significantly the training of skilled technicians to manufacture body armor, the Army and Marine Corps have not been able to find a reasonable path forward for ensuring that a viable industrial base remains available in this country.

New body armor developments and improvements have been funded primarily by industry, not by the government, so there will be fewer improvements if the industrial base goes away. More important, if the Army and Marine Corps determine the situation has changed on the battlefield and different, better performing body armor is needed, it could be a year or more before industry could reorganize, retool and restart. Can we afford that wait? AFJ

MARC A. KING is president of Ceradyne Armor Systems.