WASHINGTON – Soldiers should be required to wear new ceramic body armor plates even though they add weight and may limit mobility, Army Secretary Francis Harvey said Wednesday.
Drawn into an issue being debated on the battlefield and Capitol Hill, Harvey did not hand down an order or impose no requirements for the front lines.
The pronouncement follows the disclosure of an unreleased Pentagon study that found side armor could have saved dozens of U.S. lives in Iraq. It also reflects the military's struggle to answer criticism that soldiers are going out without the armor they need.
Soldiers at war have said the additional armor — two side plates that each weigh 2 1/2 pounds — will weigh them down and limit their fighting flexibility. These soldiers often carry as much as 70 pounds of equipment, including armor, weapons and water.
"That's going to add weight, of course," Harvey told Pentagon reporters at a news conference. "You've read where certain soldiers aren't happy about that. But we think it's in their best interest to do this."
Body armor has been a recurring flash point for military leaders — first with reports that solders, helped by their families, were buying their own protective gear and vehicle armor to better shield them from attacks in Iraq.
Army officials stressed that Harvey was offering his opinion. They said unit commanders in Iraq and elsewhere make the final decision on what armor their troops must wear.
Harvey said an Army review of casualty reports showed that 5 percent of those killed in action died from gunshot wounds, and only one of those killed in the past three years was shot in the side. He provided no further details.
"That's one too many," Harvey said. "We think it's prudent to do this because of the adaptive nature of the enemy. So we're going to do it. But there wasn't an overwhelming body of evidence to say that that should be the case."
Harvey also took aim at recent reports that the Pentagon is planning to cut National Guard troops. He said the Army will fund as many positions as the Guard can fill.
The Guard has an authorized strength of 350,000, but currently about 333,000 positions are filled. The Army, he said, will budget for the 333,000 and shift money around if more is needed as additional positions are filled.
Retired Brig. Gen. Stephen Koper, president of the National Guard Association, said that plan raised concerns about where the Army will get the extra money.
"Whose money are they going to reprogram?" Koper said. "The Army's? The Guard? If it is out of the Guard's funds, then the Adjutant Generals are not going to buy the program."
He also questioned Harvey's plans to scale back the number of Guard combat brigades, while increasing the number of brigades that support troops in combat. A brigade has about 3,500 members.
Harvey said a broad Pentagon review, scheduled to be released next month, will call for 106 Guard brigades as originally planned, but will recommend that 28 of them be combat brigades, rather than 34.
Brigades that support units in combat often have more homeland security missions, and can include military police, engineering, air defense, civil affairs and chemical units.
Reducing the number of combat brigades, Koper said, may force those units to recycle and return to active combat duty more quickly if needed during wartime.
"That's a serious problem. That puts stress on the Guard," he said.
The Pentagon plan also will recommend the Army expand to 42 combat brigades, one fewer than earlier planned.