WASHINGTON — The Army will begin fielding new, lighter body armor and other lightweight equipment next month, starting with 4th Infantry Division troops headed into Afghanistan, the Army Vice Chief of Staff told lawmakers on Wednesday.

Members of the division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team, currently training at Fort Carson, Colo., will receive the new Modular Body Armor Vests starting May 11. Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli said they’ll finish training with the new vests in hand before heading overseas at the start of the summer.

The new vests are part of a larger effort designed to lessen the weight soldiers carry on missions. With the current basic Army body armor, bulletproof plate inserts, weapons and ammo, that load can reach over 100 pounds.

Chiarelli told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the new MBAVs are nearly four pounds lighter than the Army’s current Improved Outer Tactical Vest. New bulletproof plates are smaller and weigh less than the Small Arms Protective Insert ceramics used by most troops.

New boots are about two pounds lighter than the standard Army issue. Additional weapons changes and lighter tools are designed to make troops’ load even lighter.

For an infantryman, Chiarelli estimated, the total equipment weight savings should total about 13 pounds. For machine gunners, it could be up to 23 pounds.

"They’re working at 8,000 to 11,000 feet; I don’t think any of us here at sea level can understand how important each pound can be at that altitude," Chiarelli said.

"Our goal is to provide them with that weight savings as rapidly as we can."

Lighter machine guns — including a new version of the M-240 — are already in use by U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Chiarelli said. The new vests and other improvements could be distributed to all troops headed into that country in the future, depending on how commanders feel they perform with the 4th Infantry Division troops.

Chiarelli disputed news reports that the Army was unnecessarily delaying the use of the lightweight vests, telling lawmakers that testing was completed only in the last few days.

On Sunday, the New York Times reported that $3 million worth of the new equipment was being held in storage in Virginia while Army officials debated whether it met their standards.

"We had to test this integrated system to make sure ... it was providing the level of protection needed to keep our soldiers as safe as possible," he said.

Army Special Operations troops already use the MBAVs. Chiarelli said units being sent to Afghanistan with the new equipment will also take with them the heavier, standard Army gear, but decisions on what to use for specific missions will lie with commanders in the field.

"I will not pretend to be able to make that call from here in Washington, D.C.," he said.

Senators praised the news, saying troops’ frequently complain to them about the weight of their equipment and the lack of maneuverability while wearing body armor.

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