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False Claims About Body Armor

A new group falsely accuses Republicans of voting against body armor for troops. Both sides have misled the public about this issue.

September 20, 2006

Modified: September 26, 2006

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Summary

A new ad claims Republican Sen. George Allen of Virginia "voted against giving our troops" modern body armor. He did no such thing. The ad cites a vote on an appropriations amendment that had nothing whatever to do with body armor.

The ad also claims troops were sent to Iraq with flak vests "left over from the Vietnam war," another falsehood. The ad actually shows an improved vest that wasn't available until the 1980's.

The newly formed group responsible for the ad, VoteVets.org, is reported to be considering similar ads attacking several other Republican incumbents, and has already announced  their intention to start running them against Sen.Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

This is a nasty tactic – accusing an opponent of playing with the lives of American troops – and both sides have stooped to it. This line of attack actually began with  Republicans in 2004, when President Bush's campaign repeatedly accused  his Democratic opponent John Kerry of voting against body armor.

We de-bunked Bush's claim at the time, but now there is even less excuse to make such an accusation because later investigations have made it clear that the initial shortage of up-to-date body armor was not the result of any vote in Congress, but instead was a classic supply-chain foul-up. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office laid the shortage to the inability of manufacturers to meet the Pentagon's sudden increase in demand, and logistical mistakes by the Pentagon in getting the gear shipped to Iraq and distributed.

Update Sept. 26: VoteVets.org disputes our analysis and accuses us of "muddying the waters." We have posted their memo at right, as a courtesy to VoteVets and so our readers may judge for themselves. We find that it – like the VoteVets ad – contains factual inaccuracies, which we discuss at the end of the "Analysis" section.

We also note that VoteVets accuses FactCheck.org of showing too little respect for "the sacrifice the fallen made" while body armor was in short supply. We find that offensive. We wish that partisans on both sides would show more respect for facts, and we believe that false political ads are a poor way to honor the dead.

Analysis

The ad is shocking and visually powerful. It shows Pete Granato, an Army reservist who served in Iraq, firing several rounds from an AK-47 assault rifle into a pair of mannequins at a distance of about 50 feet. Granato then rips open the vests to show bullet holes in the abdomen of the figure wearing what he described as  a "vest left over from the Vietnam War," but none in the dummy protected by what he refers to as "modern body armor, made for today's weapons."

VoteVets Ad: "Armor"

Granato:  AK-47, the rifle of choice for terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a vest left over from the Vietnam War. It's the protection we were given when we deployed to Iraq.
(Granato shoots AK-47 at vest)
GranatoThis is modern body armor, made for today's weapons.
(Granato shoots AK-47 at vest)
GranatoThe difference is life or death.

(Mannequins underneath show that modern vest stops bullets but Vietnam-era vest does not.)
GranatoSenator George Allen voted against giving our troops this. Now it's time for us to vote against him.

On Screen: Source: Vote #116, 108th Congress, 1st Session.

Announcer: Vote Vets is responsible for the content of this advertisement. 

A False Statement:
"Voted against" body armor

Granato says of the newer armor, "Senator George Allen voted against giving our troops this. Now it's time for us to vote against him."

That's false. Allen did not vote against giving troops modern body armor. What the ad cites is a vote  on an amendment April 2, 2003, just days before the fall of Baghdad, that would have appropriated just over $1 billion for unspecified "National Guard and Reserve Equipment." It made no mention of body armor. And when the  admendment's sponsor, Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, took the Senate floor to give  examples of the kinds of equipment that might be purchased with this money, she cited  "skin reduction exposure paste," "mobile chemical agent detectors,"  and "collective shelters" for chemical attacks – but didn't once mention buying body armor. Neither did any other senator. Her amendment was killed by a mostly party-line vote.

It is true that in a press release Landrieu quoted the Marine Corps Reserve as saying it needed more "bullet-proof inserts, and tactical vests" before another wave of reservists went to Iraq, among many other items. But neither Landrieu nor any other senator mentioned that during debate.

More importantly, there was already money for buying body armor. As we explain in more detail later in this article, the Pentagon was already in the process of vastly increasing its orders for the latest-model armored vests, and the shortages that plagued some units in Iraq for the first few months of the war were due not to a lack of money, but to the inability of Pentagon contractors to manufacture the vests fast enough to meet the sudden spike in demand, and problems getting the gear shipped to the troops. A report issued in April 2005 said: 

GAO: Temporary shortages of the Interceptor body armor occurred because of
acquisition delays related to lack of key materials and distribution problems in theater.

Blaming Sen. Allen for this, or Sen. Kerry for that matter, is just plain wrong.

Another False Statement: "Leftover from Vietnam"

The ad also exaggerates the body-armor problem by falsely claiming that troops were sent to Iraq using vests " left over from the Vietnam War." What the ad actually shows, however, is not a Vietnam-era vest at all but an improved vest the Pentagon adopted in the 1980's, and which was standard issue until the current "Interceptor" armor began to be phased in starting in 1999.

We first became aware of this after seeing a blog post on the subject, and confirmed it with some further research. As you can see for yourself on the well-researched website www.VietnamGear.com, the body armor used in the Vietnam war, for example the M-69 flak vest, came only in shades of olive drab, not the camouflage pattern shown in the ad.

We showed the ad to Simon Shaw, co-founder of the VietnamGear website, who said the vest shown "is not from the Vietnam war." He identified the vest the ad is showing as a Ground Troops Fragmentation Protective Vest that was part of the Personnel Armor System for Ground Troops (PASGT) introduced after Vietnam . These later vests were made of Kevlar, not nylon, and offered somewhat greater protection against shrapnel. The Kevlar vests replaced the old nylon vests during the 1980's. It wasn't until 1999 that the Pentagon began to equip troops with the current Interceptor body armor, which uses ceramic plates to stop small-arms rounds.

It is true that the Kevlar vest shown is the type that some troops, especially Reservists, were using in the early months of the Iraq conflict. But calling them "left over from Vietnam" is false. To be accurate on this count, Granato should have said, "This is a vest left over from 1999."

Other Ads

This ad is just one of many to raise this bogus issue in the 2006 House and Senate elections. We found seven ads, by candidates from both parties and from outside groups such as MoveOn.org, that mention body armor. These ads either fault an opponent for not giving our troops adequate body armor, or highlight a candidate's own support of funding for body armor.

For example, MoveOn.org has used it against six Republican incumbents, claiming they were indifferent to overcharges by Pentagon contractors "at a time when soldiers didn't have enough body armor." And Republican challenger John Raese has claimed that "Robert Byrd voted against a bill that would have provided money for body armor," sending to our troops a message "that we don't care."

But our research leads us to conclude that all these ads are off base. For one thing, all troops in Iraq (and all Pentagon civilians, for that matter) have had the bullet-stopping Interceptor body armor since January 2004. But more importantly, the shortages that existed for the first eight or nine months of the Iraq conflict weren't the fault of Congress. Furthermore, we see nothing Congress could have done that would have ended the shortage sooner.

Because there has been so much misinformation purveyed about this subject by political ads we offer here a brief chronology of how modern military body armor developed, and when it was issued to troops.

Body Armor Timeline

1941-1945 - During World War II dozens of different types of flak jackets and armor are issued to pilots and gunners in the U.S. Air force and the British Royal Air force. The first types consist of heavy steel plates sown into cloth. Different types of armor for ground troops is combat-tested but none are issued as standard equipment.
("Body Armor History," GlobalSecurity.org)

1950-1953  - The Korean War is the first military campaign during which the U.S. military issued body armor to ground soldiers. By the end of the war, soldiers are using vests made of nylon or of Doron, a laminated plastic fiberglass substance. The nylon vests weigh 12 pounds. Both types of vests stopped shrapnel, but not rifle bullets.
("Body Armor History," GlobalSecurity.org; "Armored Vest Fact Sheet," Office of the Quartermaster General. 23 December 1952) 

1965-1975 - Vietnam War. The M-69 flak jacket is issued standard to troops. Jackets were made of ballistic nylon. A medium-sized vest weighed about 8 pounds and stopped shrapnel but not rifle bullets.
("Body Armor History," GlobalSecurity.org; "M69 Flak Jacket," Vietnamgear.com)  

1980's - The Personal Armor System for Ground Troops (PASGT) vest is introduced  and issued to soldiers. The vest is made of ballistic nylon and Kevlar. A medium sized vest weighs 8.5 pounds and can stop shrapnel.
("Personal Armor System for Ground Troops (PASGT) Vest," GlobalSecurity.org)

1996 - The Interim Small Arms Protective Overvest (ISAPO) is approved for procurement by the armed forces on a limited basis. The ISAPO contains ceramic protective plates that can stop small-arms fire, including that of an AK-47. It weighs 16.5 pounds and is worn over the PASGT vest, for a total weight of 25 pounds.
("Interim Small Arms Protective Overvest," GlobalSecurity.org)

Summer, 1999 - The Interceptor  body armor replaces  the PASGT as standard issue body armor for front-line soldiers in the Army. The vest weighs 8 pounds, and two ceramic Small Arms Protective Inserts (SAPI) each weigh 4 pounds, for a total of 16 pounds. It can stop shrapnel and small-arms fire, including that of an AK-47. The Army plans to issue Interceptor body armor to U.S. forces gradually, over an eight-year period ending in 2007.
("Interceptor Body Armor," GlobalSecurity.org; Cox, Matthew, "Enter the Interceptor: Light Infantry Gets Even Lighter with New Armor," Army Times. July 1999.
GAO, "Defense Logistics: Actions Needed to Improve the Availability of Critical Items during Current and Future Operations," April 2005)

October 7, 2001 - Operation Enduring Freedom commences to remove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. Army distributes Interceptor armor to military personnel during this operation.
(GAO, "Defense Logistics: Actions Needed to Improve the Availability of Critical Items during Current and Future Operations," April 2005)

March 20, 2003 - Operation Iraqi Freedom begins. At the time, the Interceptor body armor is issued standard to Army and Marine ground troops. Most support troops (such as truck drivers) and National Guard and Reserve troops still lack the bullet-stopping Interceptor armor, however. In anticipation of the war, the Pentagon already has increased its orders sharply. As the war starts quarterly orders for vests reach 77,000 – nine times higher than pre-war levels. Orders for plates reach 109,000, eleven times higher than previously.
(GAO, "Defense Logistics: Actions Needed to Improve the Availability of Critical Items during Current and Future Operations," April 2005)

April 9, 2003 - Baghdad falls. Around this time the Army stops ordering Interceptor body armor, according to a later investigation by the Army Inspector General, as quoted in The New York Times.
(Moss, Michael, "Many Missteps Tied to Delay of Armor to Protect Soldiers," New York Times .)

May 2003 - Army reverses course, orders Interceptor body armor be issued to all soldiers, including support troops.
(GAO, "Defense Logistics: Actions Needed to Improve the Availability of Critical Items during Current and Future Operations ," April 2005)

October 2003 - Military commanders order that Interceptor armor be given to all military and civilian personnel in Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan.
(GAO, "Defense Logistics: Actions Needed to Improve the Availability of Critical Items during Current and Future Operations," April 2005)

October 21, 2003 - At a House subcommittee hearing, Lt. Gen. Richard A. Cody, an Army Deputy Chief of Staff, is asked several times if the Army has enough money to cover the costs of buying Interceptor body armor for all soldiers. Cody repeatedly says "yes."

November 19, 2003 - Senate Armed Services Committee holds hearings  on delays in supplying troops in Iraq amidst reports of families buying armor privately and sending it to soldiers.

December, 2003 - Back orders for Interceptor vests and protective plates spike to their highest levels. Over 300,000 vests are on back order; over 500,000 plates. (GAO, "Defense Logistics: Actions Needed to Improve the Availability of Critical Items during Current and Future Operations," April 2005)

January 2004 - All soldiers serving in Iraq have been issued body armor according to US Central Command.
(GAO, "Defense Logistics: Actions Needed to Improve the Availability of Critical Items during Current and Future Operations," April 2005)

April, 2005 - The Government Accountability Office reports that the initial shortage of Interceptor body armor resulted from the sudden surge in demand which manufacturers couldn't meet, due to shortages of Kevlar fabric and of a critical material used in ceramic plates. It also faults the Pentagon logistics system, which it says was trying to ship units so fast (sometimes directly from the factory to the troops) that it lost track of thousands of vests and plates.
(GAO, "Defense Logistics: Actions Needed to Improve the Availability of Critical Items during Current and Future Operations," April 2005)

January 7, 2006 - The New York Times reports a secret Marine Corps study showing that 80 per cent of fatalities in Iraq from upper-body wounds could be avoided with expanded body armor that covers sides of torso. However, this expanded body armor can add 12.4 pounds, bringing the total weight of the armor to as much as 31 pounds for a medium sized vest.
(Moss, Michael, "Pentagon Study Links Fatalities to Body Armor," New York Times; "Interceptor Body Armor Fact Sheet," Program Executive Office Solider.)

March 17, 2006 - In response to reports of soldiers employing alternative types of body armor, such as Dragon Skin, the army announces  that all commanders should ensure that soldiers are only using the Interceptor body armor and its components. Depending on modifications, the Dragon Skin can actually be heavier than the Interceptor, though supporters prefer its flexibility. The product is sold privately, but not approved by the Army because it failed ballistics tests.

May 31, 2006 - Army deadline for proposals to develop a new generation of body armor that is lighter and less cumbersome than the Interceptor armor.

October 3, 2006 - Deadline for soldiers to file with the army for reimbursement for body armor purchased by them or their families.

by Brooks Jackson and Justin Bank

Update Sept. 26: VoteVets.org co-founder Jon Soltz writes in a memo  dated Sept. 23, and received here by email at 10:08 pm Sept. 25:

Soltz: The sacrifice the fallen made during that time calls for much more respect from groups such as FactCheck.org, which only serves to muddy the waters of what should be, and is, a very clear vote in Congress.

We disagree. However much Soltz may wish there had been "a very clear vote in Congress" on body armor, there wasn't.

Nothing in his two-page memo changes the fact that body armor was not mentioned in the amendment in question, or in the debate. If any senator thought this was a vote about body armor, they were strangely silent at the time.

Most importantly, Soltz simply misstates history when says; "Eventually, Congress did appropriate funds in October of 2003, and shortly thereafter, body armor started to make its way to the troops in Iraq." In fact, as we have shown, body armor was making its way to Iraq months before that, using existing funds.

As the Government Accountability Office reported, when the Landrieu amendment came up in March 2003 the Pentagon had already increased its orders for body armor roughly 10-fold and was buying it as fast as suppliers could produce it. Approving Sen. Landrieu's amendment could not, therefore, have called forth a single additional vest or ceramic plate.

Sources

Government Accountability Office, "Defense Logistics: Actions Needed
to Improve the Availability of Critical Items during Current and Future Operations," April 2005.

Moss, Michael, "The Conflict in Iraq: Protection," New York Times . 7 March 2005.

Hedges, Michael, "Bulletproof vests target of debate," The Houston Chronicle . 18 Oct. 2003.

Loeb, Vernon and Labbe, Theola, "Body Armor Saves Lives in Iraq; Pentagon Criticized for Undersupply of Protective Vests," Washington Post . 4 Dec. 2003.

Kennedy, Edward M. and Hart, Brian and Alma, "Pentagon Still Failing to Protect the Troops," Boston Globe . 3 Feb. 2005.

Moss, Michael, "Pentagon Study Links Fatalities to Body Armor," New York Times. 7 Jan. 2006.

"All Deployed Soldiers Should Have Body Armor by November," Association of the United States Army. 21 Oct. 2003.

"Army Speeds Body Armor Buys," Association of the United States Army. 9 Oct. 2003.

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