WASHINGTON - Nearly one-quarter of the 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq still have not been issued a new type of ceramic body armor strong enough to stop bullets fired from assault rifles.
Delays in funding, production and shipping mean it will be December before all troops in Iraq will have the vests, which were introduced four years ago, military officials say.
Congress approved $310 million in April to buy 300,000 more of the bulletproof vests, with 30,000 destined to complete outfitting of the troops in Iraq. Of that money, however, only about $75 million has reached the Army office responsible for overseeing the vests' manufacture and distribution, said David Nelson, an official in that office.
Angry members of Congress have denounced the Pentagon. They say up to 44,000 troops lack the best vests because of the sluggish supply chain, significantly more than the Pentagon figure. Relatives of some soldiers have resorted to buying body armor in the United States and shipping it to their troops, congressional critics say.
"I got a letter from a young soldier in Baghdad saying that the men in his group were concerned that they had cheap armor that was incapable of stopping bullets. And they wondered why they could not have the best protection possible under the circumstances," said Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio.
The House version of an $86.7 billion Iraq spending bill passed last week would include $251 million for body armor and for clearing unexploded munitions, although it's unclear if additional money would speed up the process at this point. President Bush's original request included no more money for body armor.
The military's Interceptor vests, introduced in 1999, include removable ceramic plates in the front and back that can stop bullets such as the 7.62mm rounds fired by Kalashnikov rifles common in Iraq and Afghanistan. Older-model vests can protect against shrapnel and other low-speed projectiles but not high-velocity rifle rounds.
Several soldiers serving in both countries have credited the Interceptor vests with saving their lives.
Each vest and its plates weighs more than 16 pounds and cost more than $1,500.
The shortfall in Iraq came because the military's need for body armor outstripped its ability to make and deliver the Interceptor plates, said Nelson, the Army's deputy product manager for outfitting soldiers.
The Army already had boosted production to supply soldiers fighting in Afghanistan when planning for the Iraq war began in earnest last year, Nelson said.
Production of the plates surged a year ago from about 3,000 per month to 6,000 to 10,000 per month, Nelson said. Current production is about 25,000 plates per month, and the Army is working to double that to 50,000 per month, he said.
"It's not a question of money, it's a question of capacity to manufacture these devices," the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Gen. Richard Myers, told a Senate committee last month. "We're making them as quickly as we can."
Of the American soldiers in Iraq who already have the body armor, some received it before arriving in Iraq and others after their deployment.
Nelson said the Army originally hired three companies to make the plates: Armor Works LLC of Tempe, Ariz.; Ceradyne Inc. of Costa Mesa, Calif; and Simula Inc. of Phoenix.
The Army recently added three more companies to make the inserts, Nelson said: Point Blank Body Armor Inc., a division of DHB Industries, of Carle Place, N.Y.; ProTech Armored Products, a subsidiary of Armor Holdings Inc., of Jacksonville, Fla.; and ForceOne LLC, of Spruce Pine, N.C.
To help meet the demand, all six companies also are making heavier versions of the bulletproof plates, which can be manufactured quicker and easier, Nelson said.
Army Sgt. Chris Smith, 24, shot in the chest during an ambush in Iraq in late August, is among those who has credited the vest with saving his life.
"His armor blew up with the force ... shattered like it was supposed to," said his mother, Bev Smith of Bismarck, N.D. Her son returned fire and killed his attacker and suffered only a bruised chest, she told The Bismarck Tribune.