In Afghanistan, American troops are going medieval.
U.S. forces fighting the Taliban there have such futuristic weapons as missile-firing drones, bomb-detecting robots, and next-generation rifles capable of firing around walls. They will soon receive equipment that even knights would have recognized: armored cod pieces.
The cod pieces, which the military formally describes as “ballistic groin protection,” are made of kevlar and weigh less than 2 pounds. They're designed to be rolled up when not in use. On patrol, a soldier or Marine can unfurl the armor between his or her legs and snap it into place. British troops in southern Afghanistan, who have already begun wearing the equipment, jokingly refer to them as “combat cod pieces.”
The military is deploying the old-school protection in response to the threat posed by one of the most modern of weapons: the “improvised explosive devices,” or IEDs, that are the primary cause of coalition fatalities in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Since the start of the two long wars, IEDs have killed more than 2,700 troops in Iraq and more than 1,100 in Afghanistan. So far this year, the bombs have accounted for at least 158 of the U.S.-led coalition’s 283 battlefield fatalities in Afghanistan.
The roadside bombs, which are cheap and easy to manufacture, are particularly dangerous in Afghanistan, a mountainous country where U.S. personnel conduct a significant percentage of their combat patrols on foot rather than in armored vehicles The number of IED attacks against dismounted troops increased by more than 59 percent in April-June 2011 when compared with the same period a year earlier.
Military officials hope that the cod pieces will help troops on foot patrols survive more of those bomb blasts by protecting their groins and femoral arteries from shrapnel damage.
“It is a very simple response to a very simple weapon,” Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, the head of the military’s Joint IED Defeat Organization, said in an interview.
Barbero said that his command plans to spend roughly $20 million this year on cod pieces and new ballistic underwear designed to provide dismounted troops with additional protection against roadside bombs. In the interview, he said that troops should start receiving the cod pieces in September. All told, the U.S. plans to purchase 190,000 sets of the ballistic underwear and 45,000 of the cod pieces.
According to a PowerPoint briefing prepared by Barbero’s command, the new underwear “slows penetration of sand, grit, and dirt from IEDs in vital tissues, significantly reducing complications from infections,” while each cod piece “protects femoral/colon arteries and groin.” Military officials say that the underwear costs $58.20 per pair; each cod piece goes for $209.
The protective equipment will work only if troops choose to wear it, which is far from a sure thing. Earlier iterations of military body armor came with additional pieces of kevlar that could be attached to the bottoms of troops' flak jackets to hang over their groins. Few soldiers or Marines chose to wear the awkwardly placed armor; it looked silly, and itbounced around uncomfortably when troops ran.
Perhaps fittingly, the new cod pieces come from Britain, a country with a long history of medieval warfare. British forces began receiving the combat cod pieces late last year, and Barbero’s command is purchasing the equipment from an England-based manufacturer, Cooneen Watts & Stone. That means that U.S. forces will receive cod pieces with a British camouflage pattern rather than an American one, a trade-off the general is perfectly prepared to make.
“That’s what we’re going with, because it’s fastest,” Barbero said in the interview.