In 1965, following the successful production of small arms protective body armor for aircrews in Vietnam, Natick Labs began developing bullet-proof armor for infantry soldiers.1 The result was a nylon felt vest that could be worn by itself for protection against missile fragments, but that also allowed armor plates to be inserted to upgrade protection to small arms fire (including 30 caliber bullets). The front and back ceramic/fibreglass composite plates also had integral webbing carriers that enabled them to be worn independently of the vest.
The weight of this variable armor system ranged from 5½ lbs for just the vest, up to approximately 20½ lbs for full bullet-proof and fragment protection:2
- Vest with front and back plates
- 20½ lbs
- Front and back plates with carriers (no vest)
- 15 lbs
- Front plate with carrier (no vest)
- 7½ lbs
- Vest with front plate
- 13 lbs
- Vest only
- 5½ lbs
The Variable Body Armor was tested by the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam between January and May 1967 and though it was far too heavy for foot mobile operations it was recommended for personnel engaged in convoy escort duty and motorized patrols.3 Consequently 42,000 vests were ordered, at a cost of $800 each, to be issued on the following basis:
- Infantry Units
- 1 per 10 individuals
- Artillery Units
- 1 per 5 individuals
- Truck Companies
- 1 per 2 individuals
Approximately 28,000 sets of the VBA had been sent to Vietnam by the start of 1970. However, due to units not drawing the authorized quantities and troop redeployments the delivery of the remaining 14,500 vests was canceled in February 1970.
1. Support To United States Army In Vietnam - Clothing & Equipment (United States Army Material Command Feb 1967)
2. Exact weight depended on the size of the armor being worn.
3. Final Report - Body Armor - ACL-24/671 (Army Concept Team In Vietnam June 1967)