Lighten the load.
That has been the refrain from the Army and Marine Corps for nearly a decade as they seek to subtract pounds from the equipment that dismounted troops must carry into the field.
Two major suppliers of the materials used in body armor and helmets have come forward with new products that they say will address the problem.
The new fiber and resin blends can either increase the protection for those wearing the armor, or maintain current military specifications with less material and, therefore, less weight.
The prevalence of roadside bombs has prompted manufacturers to boost protection for troops most notably with better armor on their trucks or combat vehicles. One manufacturer, Milliken, is also working to improve flame resistance embedded in uniform fabric in the event that a vehicle catches fire.
For dismounted war fighters, however, the trend is to decrease the number of pounds they must lug around. The Afghan surge, which requires more foot patrols than were carried out in Iraq, has reportedly fueled the push to lighten equipment.
“What we’re seeing from the military is they want to reduce the weight,” said Philip J. Wojcik, global business director of advanced fibers and composites and specialty products at Honeywell’s Morristown, N.J., division.
John Dottore, program manager for military and body armor at DuPont of Wilmington, Del., agreed. “They are asking us to lighten the load of the soldier. The initial application of it will be to reduce the weight of the helmet,” he said of the company’s new Kevlar XP material.
Honeywell is offering the new Spectra Shield II SR 3136 and SR 3137 hard armor material.
Army and Marine troops are carrying 30 to 40 pounds of armor, Wojcik said. “And it’s a huge issue for places like Afghanistan. You’re at [high] altitude; you’re in rocky terrain, and you’re running around trying to get your squad in position to carry out your mission. That weight really takes away from the effectiveness of the soldier.”
The performance of armor is judged by how well it stops bullets from penetrating its defenses and the amount of “backface signature,” or blunt force trauma, the projectile inflicts on the body after it has been stopped. A bullet or shrapnel fragment — if it makes it through the armor — can potentially cause a fatality. The blunt force inflicted on the victim may not kill, but can cause debilitating injuries.
“Minimizing that blunt trauma is also very important when you think of internal organs and broken bones, which are a huge issue to soldiers in the field,” Wojcik said. “It really decreases their combat effectiveness and their ability to carry out their mission.”
Honeywell’s Spectra Shield II can absorb two to six times more energy than its previous iteration, resulting in a 5 percent improvement in ballistic protection, and a 10 percent improvement in backface signature protection. It can be used in breast plates, helmets or vehicle applications, Wojcik said.
Similarly, DuPont’s Kevlar XP, which is currently envisioned for use in advanced combat helmets and backing material for body armor, can improve ballistic and backface signature protection by 20 percent, Dottore said. Or it could be applied to solving the weight issue and take 20 percent — about a half-pound — off a typical helmet, he said.
“That will ultimately reduce the stress on the soldier especially at elevations, and at elevated temperatures as well,” Dottore said.
Both manufacturers are relying on their own data for their performance claims. Since both products were introduced in the latter half of 2010, independent Army and Marine Corps tests have not begun in earnest. Neither company makes the products that are ultimately sold to military or law enforcement agencies. Rather, they sell the patented material to helmet and body armor manufacturers, who in turn offer their goods to customers.
These suppliers are currently examining the new Kevlar and Spectra Shield materials with an eye toward integrating them into new helmets or body armor this year.
Both Honeywell and DuPont executives said the impetus to create the products came from the Army’s Program Executive Office-Soldier and Marine Corps Systems Command. However, the companies spent their own research and development dollars to create the new brands.
DuPont’s second-generation of Kevlar relies on two new technologies: an advanced fiber called KM2 Plus, and a new way to bind the fibers in order to shape them into items such as helmets. This thermoplastic resin replaces the aramid plastic process that has been in use for several decades, Dottore said.
“The way it is processed is altered, and all of those combined together … allow you to get a half pound lighter,” he added. DuPont recently broke ground on a $500 million manufacturing facility near Charleston, S.C., that will produce the new material beginning in 2012.
While Kevlar XP is initially intended for helmets, it could also be used as the liner under ceramic breast and side plates to reduce the impact of the blunt force trauma after a bullet or piece of shrapnel has been stopped, Dottore said.
Honeywell did not invent new materials for its “recipe,” but rather changed its manufacturing process by optimizing how the fiber and the resin are combined, Wojcik said.
“When it goes into a helmet, it is harder and stiffer than the previous” version, he said. “Really for us, it is a new product.”
Meanwhile, Milliken & Company, a Spartansburg, S.C.-based manufacturer of flame-resistant uniforms, recently introduced a new material that will add to the protection war fighters have in the field.
The ResQ fabric will both improve protection from fires and has double the durability compared to previous uniforms, company publicity materials said.
Cathy Hands, a marketing executive at Milliken, said the new fabric was created from a blend of about four different fibers. She declined to describe in detail the breakthrough that allowed the increased performance.
The military measures flame resistance in seconds. To measure performance, mannequins outfitted with special sensors are engulfed by flamethrowers for four seconds. Army tests of the new fabric showed the same amount of protection from second- and third-degree burns at five seconds, she said.
That one second may not seem long to the layman, but it is an enormous amount of time in the world of flame-resistant uniforms, Hands said. The new fabric performs 35 percent better than current specifications, a Milliken press release said.
The Army is conducting field tests on the new material, she said.
Further, the ResQ fabric should be more breathable and durable, she added.
“We’ve heard a lot of issues about tearing and uniforms wearing out very quickly. We’ve engineered that durability into that. It’s also a nice soft fabric, so it should be more comfortable to wear,” Hands said.