Body Armor Wars in the Marine Corps

BY Herschel Smith
16 years, 2 months ago

Foxnews is carrying an article on a dust-up over body armor within the Corps.

The Pentagon and Marine Corps authorized the purchase of 84,000 bulletproof vests in 2006 that not only are too heavy but are so impractical that some U.S. Marines are asking for their old vests back so they can remain agile enough to fight.

Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway wants to know who authorized the costly purchase of the nearly 30-pound flak jackets and has ordered the Marine procurement officers at the Quantico base in Virginia to halt the rest of an unfilled order, FOX News has learned.

“I’m not quite sure how we got to where we are, but what I do know is it is not a winner,” Conway told FOX News at the end of his recent trip to Iraq.

“I think it is foolish to buy more.”

Twenty-four thousand more vests were scheduled to be shipped to Iraq in the coming months, but Conway halted that order during his trip.

“I’ve asked them to tell me — to walk me through — the whole process … how it evolved,” Conway said.

“It goes back a couple of years. I think the vest has its advantages. It fits pretty well on the waist. The weight is distributed more evenly on the hips than shoulders, but Marines don’t like it. I didn’t like it when I put it on.”

The protective jackets, manufactured by Protective Products International in Sunrise, Fla., are known as Modular Tactical Vests, or MTVs. With heavy plates, known as sappis, on their sides, they provide more coverage than the older vests. That makes them much safer but also much heavier. The MTVs have more protection than the older “Interceptor,” made by Point Blank, and they distribute weight more evenly.

The new vests, weighing in at about 30 pounds each, are three lbs. more than previous regulation body armor. Marines, who are already carrying up to 95 lbs. depending on the mission, say they feel the difference.

It is frankly difficult to imagine that this issue could have become so confused to so many people.  Hopefully this article will be enlightening for the careful reader.  To begin with, it is necessary to show a picture of a Marine in Fallujah during Operation Alljah, wearing the IBA (Interceptor).  This picture comes to you courtesy of Bill Ardolino who embedded with the 2/6 Marines in 2007.

Take particular note of the thing hanging on the side of this Marine’s IBA (Interceptor Body Armor) vest.  It is called a side SAPI plate (small arms protective insert, or the enhanced version is ESAPI).  The side SAPIs are not used when Marines train stateside.  They are issued upon entry to the theater.  They are issued to the Marine whether he has the IBA or MTV (Modular Tactical Vest).  The 2/6 Marines were told that they would be issued the MTV prior to deployment, but delays made that impossible.  To compensate, many of the Marines went to TAG (Tactical Applications Group) in Jacksonville, N.C., right at Camp Lejeune, and purchased their own tactical vest, the Spartan 2, which is the commercially available version of the MTV.  This Marine didn’t get his before TAG ran out of the vests, so he took his IBA vest.  When 2/6 deployed to Iraq, they deployed with the vest, the front and rear SAPI plates, and the soft ballistic panels.  Some Marines from 2/6 deployed with their IBA, and had to have TAG send their back-ordered Spartan 2 to their home, and have their families send it to Iraq, since equipment vendors are not allowed to send packages directly to the theater.  But the Marines of 2/6, who regularly spent most of the day in their armor during training, wanted the Spartan 2 (MTV) so badly that some of them had their families send them to Iraq.

Take note also that the IBA doesn’t have the side SAPI integrated into the vest, so it hangs onto the IBA with Molle straps.  In fact, this particular Marine has his side SAPI hanging a full five or six inches below the rest of his vest (in the early days of the Anbar campaign, this gap under his arms was a favorite target for snipers, whereas the MTV solves this problem).  When this Marine was at Camp Lejeune, he didn’t have the side SAPIs hung onto the vest with Molle straps.  In fact, he didn’t have them at all.  Again, these SAPIs are issued upon entry to Iraq, and those side SAPI plates add quite a few pounds to the system.  Notice also that the rear SAPI is hiked up a bit in the back well above the lower part of his spine.  This is the way the IBA holds the SAPI plates.  Down in the front, high in the back, and side SAPIs hanging on by Molle, sagging down and exposing their ribs and lungs.

The IBA and the MTV are merely tactical outer vests to hold the soft panels (to protect against very small arms fire or shrapnel) and SAPI plates (to protect against up to a 7.62 mm round).  The body armor itself – front SAPI, rear SAPI, soft panels and side SAPIs – are exactly the same between the two body armor systems.  This point is critical to understanding the current dust-up.  Again, the weight between the two is the same.  The MTV does not weigh more than the IBA.  The MTV and IBA are vests, not armor.

There are a few changes made to the MTV that make it different than the IBA.  First, the front SAPI is raised a little and the rear SAPI is lowered a little to provide protection to the spine.  Second, a neck guard is provided for shrapnel, and third, a soft panel groin protector is provided.  The neck and groin protectors add little to the weight of the vest – no more than a pound or so.  Fourth, the MTV fully integrates the side SAPIs into the vest rather than hanging them onto the vest.  Finally, the MTV hugs the torso and places the weight on the hips, much like an internal frame backpack, as opposed to the IBA which places all of the weight on the shoulders.

Because of all of this, I commented on a post at the Small Wars Journal the following:

I have completely, absolutely, positively no idea whatsoever what this article is talking about. It makes absolutely no sense at all to me. The MTV is a carrier, not a new set of body armor. All of the weighty elements from the IBA – the front ESAPI plate, the rear ESAPI plate, and the side SAPIs, along with the soft panels placed inside the carrier – are still there with the MTV.

More precisely, the soft panels are taken out of the IBA along with the SAPI plates and placed in the new carrier. The soft panels had been inefficiently deployed in the shoulder area in the IBA, and now are fully utilized. One big difference in the MTV and the IBA is the fact that the IBA hung completely on the shoulders, and allowed no load bearing whatsoever on other parts of the body. The MTV hugs the torso, especially at the hips, and places the weight on the hips somewhat like an internal frame backpack.

This feature was so popular among the grunts with my son’s unit before they deployed to Iraq in 2007 (which happened to be prior to the point that the MTV had been issued) that most of the men went to TAGs (Tactical Applications Group) just outside Camp Lejeune and purchased the commercial version of the MTV, or the Spartan 2.

I have heard multiple Marines myself praise the MTV for its ability to take the load off of the shoulders and place it on the hips – and thus PREVENT BACK PROBLEMS, and have never once heard even the slightest complaint. I have also worn the IBA and Spartan 2, and know the difference first hand. I simply cannot account for the report in this article. The only possible explanation I have for it is that the complaints may not be coming from grunts who have to go on 20 mile “humps” with their armor on (along with ammunition, Camelback, carabineer to hold weapon, etc.). The MTV (or Spartan 2) was so popular among Marines at Camp Lejeune that, again, personal funds were spent purchasing it.

Compare this to the IBA which places the load on the shoulders, and again, I simply do not understand this article. Also, the IBA hangs the side SAPIs by Molle loops, so usually they sag (making good sniper targets under the arms of the wearer because of this sagging). The only real weight difference with the Spartan 2 / MTV and the IBA that I have seen is the existence of the front groin soft panel guard. This adds what – several ounces of weight?

Again, confused, and suspect there is more to this story than meets the eye.

As it turns out after reading the discussion thread on this post, I was right, and the Marines are complaining about the weight of the armor and not the design of the vest.  In other words, this is what is happening.  Marines who are not infantry have trained with their vests on less frequently and not as long in duration as Marines who are infantry, and when they do have them on, they only have the front and rear SAPI plates inserted.  The Marines of 2/6 trained with only their front and rear SAPI plates as well, but knew that they would receive side SAPIs upon deployment to Iraq because many of them were “salty” Marines; they had done this before, some more than once.  Marines who are complaining of heavier weight haven’t been properly briefed or trained to expect heavier loads due to the side SAPIs whether they wear the IBA or MTV.

So the complaints flow concerning weight, as if the weight is all about the MTV versus the IBA rather than the four SAPI plates themselves.  Just to make sure about this, I recently conversed with a senior Marine in whom I place the greatest confidence.  Here is what he told me.

“Sir, you need to understand that there is a difference between a garrison Marine and a grunt, and between a veteran and a combat veteran.  The IBA is good for nothing but back problems, and the people complaining about the MTV are Marines who don’t have to wear their armor 16 hours a day.  The Marines have done a fine job of saving our backs with the MTV.  We like ours and wouldn’t give them up.  Basically, sir, this isn’t about the difference in weights because they are the same.  This is about weight – period.  Sir, this all comes down to a fight between grunts and pogues.  The grunts do what they have to do, and the pogues complain.  Simple as that.”

Yes, the battle space weight is significant, with the armor, the hydration system, ammunition, firearm, radios and other equipment.  The debate is about the use of side SAPI plates, not the MTV or the IBA.  It had been previously considered to jettison the requirement to wear side SAPIs based on conditions in theater, but this is a situation-specific decision.  Weight must be reduced in order to save the health of our warriors, and this should be a goal of future warrior systems.  The MTV is a vest, not armor, and thus has nothing whatsoever to do with the debate about weight.  The MTV was an outstanding success, my Marine contact tells me.  The USMC should be proud of the equipment they have designed for armor.  It is the best available anywhere.


Body Armor Wars: The Way Forward

Body Armor Goes Political

Trackbacks & Pingbacks


  1. On July 26, 2009 at 8:36 pm, mrehbein said:

    To everyone concerned about this body armor debate in the marine corps i’m an infantry marine serving at 29 palms currently and this MTV is a piece of absolute trash. To be fair to the marines corps attempt to give us new equipment the weight distrubution is excellent my shoulders thank them. Despite this the MTV makes myself and my fellow marines feel absolutely useless agility and ability to move forget about not in that thing, and shooting as well as you do in the old interceptor version just doesn’t happen. When you wear it for anywhere from 15 to 20 hours like we do you’ll understand, also my shoulders feel great but my hips are now permanently scarred quite literally even with the provided extra padding. So all in all as a marine one must either fight at CIF (central issue facility) or pony up the cash for a plate carrier. Another note to the MTV’s success is the whole weight issue i personnally cant tell the difference in the moment, its just a movement issue.

  2. On July 26, 2009 at 8:45 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    Thanks for the input. I know Marines who feel exactly the opposite – not in terms of hating the weight, but in terms of the IBA / MTV comparison. So there are enough opinions to go around.

    I am under the impression that based on a MARADMIN some year or so ago, you cannot purchase your own carriers. You must wear issued equipment. No? I think I can locate the URL for the MARADMIN.

  3. On July 28, 2009 at 12:17 pm, crm114 said:

    I’ve heard the same thing. I’m pretty sure by now it’s dogma. They were starting that policy right when I left IZ in spring ’07.

  4. On July 29, 2009 at 3:10 pm, mrehbein said:

    I’m not sure as to the admin rules but if you have the right command aka. plt sgt on down you can were plate carriers you purchase else where.

  5. On August 9, 2009 at 2:32 pm, SimpleJack said:

    I am a Marine who has already deployed to Iraq. I wore the interceptor for half of a training workup for my first deployment, at which point they issued us MTVs. When they are brand new they feel halfway decent, although once you wear them in they begin to become loose and feel saggy and the velcro cummerbund can wear out and it won’t hold closed anymore. For the duration of my second workup I’ve worn the Spartan 2 medium with the small MTV kevlar insert (which ironically is itself larger than the Spartan 2 medium vest is and must be squeezed in). Spartan 2 so far is a great vest, the interceptor and MTV were equally worthless to me.

    The main perceived issue I’ve had when comparing the MTV to similarly weighed vests is that it totally restricts the shoulders and keeps you from being able to properly shoulder a weapon. The military for some time now has been training infantry to square off on your target instead of turning your body sideways like the old, pre-body armor training dictated. This means you need to be able to hunch your shoulders inward to properly sight in, and that is near impossible to do with the MTV. The only solution I have seen is to exchange your MTV for a size smaller than you’d normally wear. I am not a completely little guy at 6’0” 184 lbs, and I had to change for a small MTV to feel effective. I then got a Spartan 2 (which is NOT an MTV for the record, although similar it has differences I prefer), which in medium size still barely fits the small MTV kevlar insert that I had to fold corners and shoehorn in. I am far more satisfied with the Spartan 2’s side sapi holders that dig less, and the shoulder spacing allows me to properly aim a weapon (although I haven’t worn a small MTV and it may be the same).

    The best thing I’ve seen issued is the modular plate carrier I’ve seen issued to 2nd LAR and my Bn’s STA (scout-snipers) platoon. It is near identical to the MTV with the cummerbund and everything except the upper half is shaped to the plate and has no collar. It doesn’t restrict the shoulders whatsoever, still allows side sapis on the cummerbund (which can be removed turning it into a true plate carrier), and from what I’ve been told it is 100% better. I would sacrifice my shoulder and neck protection to fire my weapon in the standing and prone positions correctly.

  6. On September 28, 2009 at 9:34 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    The comment above by SimpleJack seems to be the standard. I have heard many complaints about the difference between the MTV and the commercially available MTV, or the so-called Spartan II from TAG (Tactical Applications Group). The later is better than the former. The Marines to whom I have talked like the Spartan II when required to wear it for long periods of time.


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You are currently reading "Body Armor Wars in the Marine Corps", entry #976 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Body Armor,Marine Corps,Military Equipment and was published February 29th, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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