When Body Armor Makes Sense and When It Absolutely Doesn’t

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Mon, Jul 7 - 9:00 am EST | 4 years ago by
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“NO DOUBT but ye are the People-your throne is above the King’s. Whoso speaks in your presence must say acceptable things…”
~ Rudyard Kipling, The Islanders

Lines of Departure - Body Armor


Body armor; we cannot wear it and catch the enemy, too. We cannot insist on it, all day, every day, and have a prayer of winning.

That said, the question of giving up the body armor isn’t as clear cut as all that. There are arguments on both sides, some of which are not trivial. I’ll get to one of those in a bit.

First, though, some arguments are trivial. And ignorant. And brain-bustingly stupid. Let’s get one of those out of the way right now. Getting it out of the way won’t be made any easier by the fact that the preening, self-righteous ignorance pretends to moral superiority. The conversation goes something like this:

Preening Morally Superior Ignoramus: “How can you deny our fighting men and women the very best defense available? What kind of a moral monster are you? Don’t you have any feelings? Don’t you care? What about Britney? What about the children?”

Answer: “I care enough that I want them to win the war. I care enough that I want the enemy destroyed. I care enough to want to make sure that the enemy doesn’t get away to fight again and to have another shot at killing our people. I care enough that I don’t want the deaths we will inevitably suffer to be complete wastes. Ummm… what about Britney and the children? Britney who? Oh. No, I don’t care about her at all.”

Preening Morally Superior Ignoramus: “How can you deny our fighting men and women the very best defense available? What kind of a moral monster are you? Don’t you have any feelings? Don’t you care? What about Britney? What about the children?”

Answer: “My feelings are irrelevant. You are not paying me for my feelings, but to do my job. My job is to win the war or help to win it. As terrible as it is to lose anyone, it will happen. That is the nature of war. But every man or woman lost in a losing, pointless effort is even worse than a loss; it is a waste. Every man and woman lost to your ignorance about war is still worse, it is a self-inflicted waste.”

Preening Morally Superior Ignoramus: “How can you deny our fighting men and women the very best defense available? What kind of a moral monster are you? Don’t you have any feelings? Don’t you care? What about Britney? What about…”

You get the idea. Conversation and explanation? Useless. It would be no more difficult trying to explain to this kind of jackass – and he is legion – why we don’t have powered armor yet, a la Starship Troopers. It would be about as easy to try to explain why we can’t power that armor we don’t have with unicorn farts. Think I’m exaggerating? Well… maybe a little, but recall back to that occasion when Rumsfeld had to defend that the military didn’t have everything it needed in Iraq: “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

Though I am not fan of Rummie – not even remotely – in this case he was right. You can’t predict everything. You can’t create production facilities for something new with the stamp of a foot. You can predict that if you tried to cover every possibility in advance, you would be charged, instead, with fraud, waste and abuse. The charges would probably arise from the very same people demanding perfection in war.


Sorry, but perfection in war, far more than a foolish consistency in peace, is the hobgoblin of small mind. Loss is in the nature of war. You can reduce the tempo of it… maybe… sometimes. But the enemy gets a vote. You can improve the exchange ratio for it… maybe… sometimes. But the enemy gets a vote. You cannot eliminate the fact of it, because the enemy gets a vote.

If reducing the tempo means the war goes on so that even with the reduced tempo you lose more, and then lose the war, you have gained no obvious advantage. Unpredictability is also in the nature of war. The enemy doing things without consulting you to see if you’re ready for them is in the nature of war. Unfortunately, preening ignorance pretending to moral superiority also seems to have become a feature of war.

Though we’ve (by which I mean the military has) been making concessions to this kind of willful ignorance for decades, it’s a losing effort. Every concession merely sets a new bar for the demand for more concessions to aesthetics and ignorance. It should have been nipped in the bud long, long ago. One wonders why so few general officers or admirals have tried.


There is a much more defensible argument for body armor, though it’s not defensible all the time, in all places, and for every kind of war.

During Korea, after the truce talks began, and when war weariness began to set in, the enemy’s prime route – really his only remaining route – to victory hinged on that rising war weariness on the part of the American people, for an unpopular and distant war, where there was no obvious or easily explained vital interest. His method to target that weakness was to inflict casualties on us. In that kind of situation, where we are not really interested in closing with and destroying the enemy, where there is little required tactical movement, and where preserving lives is not merely good in itself, but necessary to bringing the war to a sufficiently successful conclusion, well duh, of course body armor makes sense.

It also makes sense once you’ve fixed the enemy and know he stands ready to fight. It makes sense when you’re in fixed positions, a FOB (Forward Operating Base) say, where required movement is little, rest is available, water is plentiful, and you are peculiarly vulnerable because the enemy is fairly free to snipe and shell from the distance at a target, you, that doesn’t change much and moves hardly at all.

Where it doesn’t make sense is when we’re dealing with threats – VBIEDs, say1 – where the armor is useless, or when the men are out there, in the field, actively hunting for a tough, elusive enemy, who moves very lightly and very quickly on his feet.

We need to start using it only where it makes sense.


1 Just picture it; when the smoke from a 500-pound VBIED (Very Big Improvised Explosive Device) clears, and his remains come back to Earth, PFC Schmidlap’s head is about a hundred meters to the east. His left arm is a similar distance south, his right arm – well, what can be identified of it – is somewhere off to the north. His feet and legs have disappeared entirely. But, by God, his armored vest held his torso together…

Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.

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  • Lawrence F. Greenwood

    Body Armor is a nice idea in theory, and its a recent theory. We have fought more than one war with the only thing between the troops and a bullet were training and a couple of layers of cloth. Body Armor can keep troops alive but at the disadvantage of its weight tiring them out in the field and the fact it reduces there reaction time. What’s worse is that given time, troops might get the idea that Body Armor will keep them from harm, serious or otherwise and be less willing to take cover and concealment from enemy fire because they will think that Body Armor will protect them. Sometimes there right, but good money is that they will be wrong just as often. And if they do get wounded getting medical aid might take longer as a medic would have to remove that armor before they can work. Losing precious time and possibly the troops life. In certain situations having that Body Armor might be a good thing, but only in certain situations.

    • Tom Kratman

      You know, there’s very little that’s changed in war, at core, and much still to be learned from old practice. The ancient Greek hoplite didn’t put on his armor until just before action.

  • Grumpy Guy

    Unfortunately, this is politically DOA in our current society. We live in a country where there are supposed to be zero defects and zero risks, and where every special snowflake is hermetically sealed in bubblewrap at birth. And no politician, no matter even if the Army tells them the truth, is going to turn around and tell that bitter truth – that You Are Not Always Safe, particularly in a war zone – to any voter. If they did, the Mainstream Media would eat them alive and drag the bloody remains through the streets. Too bad, because this article makes sense. It just makes too much sense for a people who don’t have much sense these days, and become irritated when one tries to speak to them as adults, or make them think.

    • Tom Kratman

      Yeah, but at least I can point and say, “I told you so,” someday. Though the satisfaction of that, after we lose an existential war and our country, is going to be very limited indeed.

    • PavePusher

      I’ve applied the exact same points to the fact that our troops are no longer trained in arms and armed for defense on – and off-base as a matter of daily routine.
      The brass (and, sadly, SNCO’s) don’t care because it would affect their promotions negatively, in today’s P.C. promotion system.

    • akulkis

      The prevailing attitude is that of the helicopter mom…and the politicians will always listen to her even more than her son who’s actually in the shit.

  • Jarrad

    As it gets lighter and tech improves it will be easier to move and do things with it. I’ve chased down many an insurgent while wearinf the IOTV. I preferred my plate carrier but the Iotv wasn’t that bad

    • Tom Kratman

      Least likely thing to happen, Jarrad. Instead, as the weight drops, more crap will be added.

    • Jarrad

      Indeed. I still think combat load should be plate carrier, 6-7 mags, camelbak. 2 frags, coms as needed, IFAK, and helmet( I like the gunfighter cut ACH). A small assault ruck to carry minor stuff like demo, extra ammo, and maybe some snivel. But other than that you don’t need much else

    • Tom Kratman

      Some STANO. A lot, though, depends on the usual factors of METT (as amended by a zillion colonels reaching for buzzword immortailty: METT-T, METT-TC, METTinthepark, METTovercoffee…).

    • akulkis

      The temple and the base of the skull are the most vulnerable parts of the head. I really LIKE having the base of my skull covered. that cut-down helmet doesn’t do it.

    • akulkis

      You can’t make it much lighter… more mass = more momentum to more quickly stop the bullet. Even with the almost perfectly rigid SAPI plates in the armor we have now, getting hit by a 7.62mm makes the soldier wearing it fall down just like a target in a shooting gallery. Reduce the mass of the armor, and you’re going to see more serious injuries.

      That being said, I think out on patrol looking to do aggressive things, body armor does more harm than good. Many men in my company from my Baghdad deployment are now 100% disabled due to spinal column damage, caused primarily by the body armor.

    • Jack Withrow

      What would be very telling is if the VA and DoD would publish how many GWOT veterans with campaign ribbons have been diagnosed with Spinal, hip, knee, or ankle problems that are directly attributed to wear of body armor. I suspect that both the rate of diagnosis and overall percentages will come as a shock to many.

    • akulkis

      I know far too many who have had their spine seriously screwed up by the body armor. 100% disability. And both the army and the VA tend to be very reluctant to sign off on anything more than 50% disability, because that’s when they start paying every month (below 50% disability = no compensation).

    • akulkis

      That must have been one SLOW jihadi…..

  • http://www.theannoyeddroid.com Joey Calvey

    Light infantry should be light, and used to localize the enemy, and fight them as skirmishers. But you can’t do that wearing 100 pounds of gear, it isn’t working. But I wasn’t infantry, and never ran with light infantry. When I was with 5th mech, bradley afv’s packed the weight. Not practical in the mountains.
    I think we need to re-evaluate mobility vs. survivability. Wearing a kevlar helmet, and dropping the body armor, as well, reducing the amount carried per man by distributing common gear across the squad/platoon. But we have already talked about that.

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  • walterdaniels

    I agree. Until, and only *if,* we can develop truly _personal_ armor that stops most projectiles, the decision has to be, wear or not wear. Eventually, we may have *practical* “light armor,” but it aint here yet.Even the, a la Iron man, it will be *specialists* wearing it (SEAL’s, Marine Recon, etc.). At a probably cost of $100+K *per suit,* it will be a specialists only game. A true “force multiplier.”

    • akulkis

      Current armor will stop a 7.62 bullet. Stopping a .50 cal round will just result in the soldier’s body being jerked so violently that he dies from having his neck broken anyway.

    • akulkis

      I don’t see how, say, 3x the capability, but fielding only 1/10th as many men is a force multiplier….

  • sotarrthewizard

    Until we can come up with Powered Infantry Armor (see Tom’s book, “Caliphate”…), we will not have a mobile soldier with all the latest tech gewgaws. And that soldier will STILL be vulnerable to high-caliber aimed fire from a low-tech bolt rifle. (Mosin-Nagants come to mind: the design is over a century old, and it’s STILL an effective weapon in the right hands. . . )

    • James

      Anything that can perform as a spear, club, and rifle while being simple enough to maintain with a dark ages smithing skill and tools is bound to be successful.

  • Tom Kratman

    Someone pointed out elsewhere, VBIED is vehicle borne. These also tend to be “very big” and I have seen that usage about as often, quite possibly incorrectly / unofficially. Unless the vehicle is moving there’s not a lot of difference, either, between a 1000 pounder in a parked car and a 1000 pounder that was placed under a parked car, overnight. And very big, given the fate of poor Schmidlap, seemed more poetic. So lump it. ;)

    • akulkis

      Vehicle Borne is the official meaning, but very big is understood.

  • James

    Great article great points all around.

    The one about the VBIED reminds me a lot of the obsession of the MRAPS and now the abortion that is the new APC and its 80+ton allowance.

    Hell the Palestinians blew the SHIT out of a Merkeva MBT with a VBIED. They can always make them bigger….

    • Tom Kratman

      Tanks can usually prevail in the race against missiles, among other reasons because tanks have a lot of redundant carrying capacity. Something similar happened with battleships, when everyone expected them to fall to light, cheap, torpedo boats. But the Earth has a lot more carrying capacity than any vehicle, so…

      On the other hand, the bigger you force the enemy to make his IEDs, the fewer he can make, the harder it is for him to prepare them, move them, and emplace them, and the more likely we can catch him first. Certain? No, just somewhat more likely.

    • James

      The problem is people keep demanding war be made Safe.

    • akulkis

      They still believe in the pushbutton war fantasies of the 70′s.

    • James

      The depressing part is they are still convinced they can do it.


      So think of it as a system that allows the president to kill anyone he wants with the touch of a button!

      Of course each missile could be seen as a nuke launch by other nations and cost as much as a jet fighter but hey it has a 40% chance of killing a guy in his mud hovel making sweet love to his goat!

    • akulkis

      That’s precisley the issue. No bank vault is inviolate, but if you can raise the cost of breaking in high enough (in both terms of materials needed, time required to do the job, and damage to what the thief is after inside), then you’ve successfully deterred your bank vault being robbed.

      Same goes with IEDs. For a soft-skin civilian vehicle, with the floor boards riding 6-12 inches off the ground, a handgrenade or two laying in a pothole is sufficient power. With an MRAP, you need a hell of a lot more explosive than that to cause any damage….

      In Baghdad, some of the roadside IED’s were built in stages, usually during traffic jams (passenger gets out, does a few minutes worth of work, and gets back into vehicle… this minimizes the amount of incriminating material being in the vehicle at any one time.)

    • Tom Kratman

      There is possibly no better illustration that, in war, the enemy gets a vote, too.

    • akulkis

      The ultimate insult was when, at my base, an IED was set up right outside a side gate, next to our trash burn-pile. A lot of locals used to stop and sift through it…

      After the IED went off that was placed there, that was marked as a no-go zone, and tower guards were ordered to fire on any civilians leaving their vehicle in that area.

  • http://www.military-history.us/ Cincinnatus

    Why do I always get the mental picture of you with lance and windmill in the background when I read your pieces?
    I am totally in agreement with you. However, history and the evidence seems to indicate that the powers that be are not interested in winning wars. Or that they are at least as interested in reducing public angst as winning wars. I would even argue that actually winning wars is secondary to avoiding casualties. How else are we to explain the stupid uniform and equipment requirements with the idiotic ROE they impose on troops in-theater?

    • Tom Kratman

      “I am I, Don….” ;)

      Now can you just imagine what a pain in the ass I was as a company grade?

    • http://www.military-history.us/ Cincinnatus

      We have the same attitude. I imagine you were the same kind of pain I was as a senior NCO doing close combat weapons testing.

  • Col Kay

    I did my time in the bullet proof green frog suit and black feet, Not being seen is the key to not being shot, along with smelling them before they smell you.

    You can’t do this while armoured or while in riding in armour.

    But I feel that it is more important to be fighting for a reason, fighting with an idea of how to achieve that result

    Col KaySgt

    • akulkis

      Yeah, non-perfumed soap and shaving soap should be mandatory issue. As the late Col. David Hackworth said, you can’t sneak up on the enemy smelling like the corner drug store.

  • Neil

    “In that kind of situation, where we are not really interested in closing with and destroying the enemy…”

    Unfortunately, I think that describes the entire “War on Terror”, at least at the strategic level.

  • akulkis

    This analysis for when to use and not use body armor is spot on. Being based on a FOB that was literally the size of 1 grid-square (perimeter was a trapezoid 1000m – 950m – 1000m – 1050m), and which was rocketed and mortared heavily, there were times when I went to bed wearing my vest and helmet, and there were times when it was the last thing I wanted. Conducting any sort of offensive capture or killing activity on foot with the IOTV or even just a SAPI plate carrier is going to lead to only one result — exhausted, dehydrated soldiers who haven’t accomplished what they set out to do (so the mission has to be run again). On the other hand, during indirect fire season, the helmet and vest was a stress-reliever.

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