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So you Need to Buy Body Armor? Start With ‘Why’

Note:

This is the first in a series of articles I will be writing on body armor and helmets. This article is geared toward the Law Enforcement community. However, the same principles apply for any organization that requires body armor as a part of their job description.

25 years ago this month, Rangers from Bravo Company, 3rd battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment were engaged in some of the heaviest urban combat the American Army had seen since Vietnam. Bowden reported one of those Rangers, in particular, Sergeant Casey Joyce, was shot in the back in that street fighting. His Ranger Body Armor, while designed to stop the threat from the rear, was not effective, as he did not have the plate in his carrier.

Operation Gothic Serpent, specifically the battle of Mogadishu, has been a specter in the minds of American military officers ever since.  Many in leadership vowed they would not let the same thing happen to soldiers ever again. As a result, a concerted effort to outfit every Soldier with body armor was made. Along with this, commanders dictated that all soldiers would wear every item of body armor that they had, regardless of if the most likely threat mandated it. And while body armor has saved Soldier’s lives, it came at the cost of a heavy, cumbersome vest in the form of the Interceptor Body Armor.

This one-size-fits-all solution led to its own set of problems. And while the armor was saving lives, it did so by trading mobility for ‘security’ in the form of additional weight. Soldiers found it difficult to move rapidly, fatigued easier, and as time progressed, started to have lower-back injuries as a result of increased load and effects on posture.

While the military is its own entity, to a certain extent there has been some crossover with law enforcement on this topic. Several incidents over the years have made it clear that body armor saves police officer’s lives. However, purchasing agents should pay attention to the lessons learned from the military when it comes to the amount of body armor needed. Since 2010, there has been a proliferation of body armor on the market, both for law-enforcement and military use. With so many choices, what should you be looking for if you are a purchasing agent?

The best thing to do is to take Simon Sinek’s advice and ‘start with why’. Look at why is your department mandating the purchase of body armor in this instance? The reason this is important is that there are different levels of armor for different levels of threat. And as our opening illustration shows, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution when it comes to body armor.

Once you know the why behind this armor purchase, then you can start looking at how you can defeat that threat based off a specific level of protection for the position that officer holds (e.g. SWAT officer versus a patrol officer) and the most likely threat that officer will encounter on a daily basis. For the purposes of our discussion, ‘threat’ is defined as a specific projectile and cartridge combination. How do you do this? By looking at either the FBI or state statistics for your ‘area of operation,’ and seeing whether a rifle or pistol threat is most prevalent. If one report gives you access to what the statistics are for your area down to the caliber, then you have more refinement as to what you will need to protect from. If not, then go with the highest threat based on the most dangerous projectile in your threat category (rifle or pistol).

Now that we’ve got that narrowed down, what armor type should we go with? Hard Armor? Soft Armor? Both? That will depend once again upon the threat you are trying to defeat, and what the officer will be doing while in this armor. If it is just worn as a part of a rapid-takedown on an objective (read: SWAT operation) and then it can be taken off, a heavier hard armor or a hard/soft combination might be justified. This is especially true if the most likely threat encountered will be from a rifle.

If, however, this body armor is going to be worn all day by officers who potentially will be chasing after suspects on foot with the most likely threat being a pistol caliber, hard armor may not be necessary for their job. Hard armor will potentially impede their mobility over long distances through the added weight and inhibited range of motion. Less mobility means that officer might not catch that suspect. It also means they are a (relatively) easier target to place effective fires on if someone is shooting at them.

Knowing what the most likely threat that will be encountered starts with doing the analysis of why this purchase is being made and the most likely threat to be encountered. Once you have that, then you can start looking at how to defeat that threat (hard armor, soft armor, both), and that will guide you towards what type of armor to look at. Next week, we will continue this discussion as we start looking more in-depth on how to do your threat analysis and compare it to armor ratings.

#bodyarmor

Raymond Miller
Raymond Miller is the former Small Arms Master Gunner of the 82nd Airborne Division. He is leveraging his operational experience training soldiers in Weapons Mastery to address Human Systems Integration issues for the United States Army.

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