Forget JDAMs and MOABs, satellites and stealth bombers. For the American GI on the ground in Iraq, the true technological marvel may be four-pound ceramic plates slipped into flak jackets.
Capable of stopping most bullets, the body armor worn by virtually all of the Army and Marine combat troops in Iraq is being credited with saving many lives. Soldiers shot at close range are walking away with no more than sore backs and broken ribs.
While the newest smart bombs and electronic wizardry usually get more attention, unheralded improvements in soldiers' gear are improving performance and safety on the battlefield. The new body armor, in particular, may help dramatically reduce casualties in the frequent firefights troops are facing on the road to Baghdad.
In addition to the lighter and more protective body armor, US soldiers and marines now wear more comfortable, stronger helmets and boots, as well as kneepads.
"Everything they have is much better," says Robert Kinney, director for individual protection at the Army's Soldiers Center lab in Natick, Mass. "It means a tremendous increase in their quality of life."
Some of the new equipment results from years of research and development at the Natick lab. Others are drawn from more unusual sources: The kneepads are offshoots of those worn by roller bladers.
The new body armor, named "the interceptor," is composed of a layered Kevlar vest, similar to but stronger than ones worn by police, as well as attachments to protect the neck and groin. Two other plates slip into the vest and cover vital organs.
As a result, far fewer casualties arrive at military hospitals with abdomen or chest wounds, says Air Force Maj. Mark Ervin, a surgeon at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. "That's kind of remarkable," Maj. Ervin says. Patients with shrapnel wounds from mines or other explosives often come with wounds along their extremities that stop "like a sunburn line" right where the body armor starts, Ervin adds.
Altogether it weighs 16 pounds, a third lighter than the previous 20-year-old bulky design that protected only against shrapnel but couldn't stop bullets. Even the earlier vests, though, were far superior to the metal plates sewn into cloth worn by World War II aircraft gunners.
The lighter weight is welcome relief for soldiers already carrying 100 to 120 pounds of gear. The military began developing the new body armor in the wake of the debacle in Somalia, when US soldiers were wounded after ditching their heavy armor.
The new gear got its first major battlefield try out during Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan in 2001. Manufacturers credit it with saving the lives of 29 Americans. Similar lightweight ceramic equipment lines the cockpits of military helicopters.
Manufacturer Simula Inc. has supplied the Army and Marines with 100,000 ceramic plates at a cost of about $800 per soldier, says the company's CEO, Brad Forst. Since January, Simula has ramped up production to 4,000 per week at its Arizona factory and started shipping the plates directly to Kuwait, Mr. Forst says.
Soldiers' helmets have also evolved since the first Gulf War. Instead of the sling that secured the helmet, the new design uses form-fitting foam pads similar to those found in bicycle helmets. It also offers more protection: capable of stopping handgun or small machine gun rounds, but not high-powered rifle shots.