Army Looks Ahead To Next Generation Of Body Armor And Helmets

By Eric Beidel
Developing body armor for future combat involves some amount of guesswork and requires scientists to take stock of the past and a stab at the unknown.

U.S. troops already wear the best armor money can buy, Army officials said, but the service continues to look beyond the current vests and helmets in an effort to protect against threats that soldiers haven’t yet encountered. In doing so, the Army is investigating ways to make its forces more agile in their protective gear by reducing the weight of its systems and looking at the grains, powders and other ingredients used in body armor at the microscopic level.

“We know what we have today works,” said Lt. Col. Jon Rickey, product manager for soldier protective equipment at Program Executive Office-Soldier. No piece of armor has been beaten by a threat it was designed to defeat, he said. “But can it be somewhat less stringent? If it’s less stringent, then obviously it allows us to reduce weight.”

The latest Army body armor ensemble, when all of the pieces are worn, weighs more than 31 pounds. A soldier can shed a few pounds here and there by using a modified plate-carrier system, but lighter variations leave more of the body open to fragmentation threats. The complete gear covers more than 1,000 square inches of the soldier’s body. Though it weighs as much as 8 pounds less, a plate-carrier alternative covers less than half that area.

“It’s all about weight in my view,” Rickey said. “We have to reduce the weight for our soldiers in combat.” The system of the future will become even more modular and scalable, he said, and a soldier will be able to tailor it to a specific mission. The challenge comes from trying to reduce the weight while providing the same amount of protection. To solve that problem, the Army is studying everything from the changing sizes of soldiers right down to the fibers that form the fabric of the armor.

“The first thing we need to do is look at the anthropomorphic sizes of soldiers,” Rickey said. “There isn’t a soldier, whether he’s really big or small, who can go into combat without body armor that fits him correctly.”

A soldier stationed in Germany last year couldn’t deploy until the Army manufactured a special helmet for him. He required a size larger than the service provided, Rickey said. The Natick Soldier Systems Center is conducting a study on sizes by using modeling and two-dimensional scanning techniques. The Army hopes to use the data to update its sizing charts.

Researchers also must consider the soldier “from the inside out” and how layers of armor can complement one another, Rickey said. The current gear wasn’t designed this way; neither were previous incarnations of body armor, he said. Dating back to the military flak vest used by troops in Vietnam, the Army has made a series of enhancements to existing equipment. Based on feedback from war zones, elements were added like ornaments on a Christmas tree, Rickey said.

“There hasn’t been a soldier protection program,” he said. “I think we need a game plan. I think we need a focus as the dollars begin to decrease.”

The improved outer tactical vest (IOTV), though, marks the tangible beginning to a new philosophy. The latest version, which troops began using this past summer, includes a redesigned and removable yoke and collar, reversible and detachable side carriers and universal side pouch, and equipment anchor points on the front and rear which interface with hydration systems and other items. Its modular concept allows commanders to confront various threats in their unique environments, said Maj. Craig Fournier, assistant product manager for soft armor at PEO Soldier.

“A mounted soldier in a turret has the option to utilize all accessories such as deltoid, front, and back protectors for maximum protection, while a dismounted soldier in the mountains can strip the IOTV down to the base vest, removing the side pouch, side plates, and accessory pieces, slimming the IOTV down to a trim 9.86 pounds,” Fournier said.

Another idea to increase mobility is to use ceramic tiles, which are lighter and more flexible. But even if the overall weight of a system can’t be lessened, there may be ways to distribute the pounds more advantageously. Something that feels lighter, even if the overall weight is the same, will have a positive psychological impact on the soldier, officials said.

Rickey described the Army’s current armor as “ceramic, like china, but wrapped in a high-tech system.” The service uses silicone carbide and boron carbide in its hard armor but wants to better understand the correlation between these material properties and their performance. The Army doesn’t have a formula to predict what, if any, cracking will occur in an armor plate if struck by a bullet. It depends on the type and speed of the bullet and where it hits the ceramic.

“We have some of the smartest minds in the world working on that problem,” Rickey said. “Until we have that mathematical formula you can’t really model it in a way that allows you to predict what’s going to happen. You can shoot it and see what happens and sort of go backwards. But you can’t say what is going to happen.” The Army wants to develop new methods for testing its ceramic plates before firing bullets into them at the range.

The service also has turned its attention to plastics like polyethylene and recent breakthroughs like graphene, essentially a chicken wire of densely packed carbon atoms and bonds. Graphene is widely recognized as one of the strongest, lightest and most flexible materials known to man. There may be a place for it in body armor, officials said.

The Army has been looking at these details under the microscope, as well as the way soft-armor fibers are weaved through a vest. Fibers can lose a quarter of their performance value during the weaving process. Officials want to find different ways of testing these materials as well. The traditional method calls for stretching a fiber until it breaks to determine its strength. “But that’s not how that bullet is going to interact with the fiber,” Rickey said. That would be a much more dynamic exchange.

Armor designs must consider threats from rifles, handguns, fire and fragmentation from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which kill more troops in Afghanistan than anything else. The Army also wants to guard soldiers from unknown threats. Researchers are using modeling and simulations to figure out how to best protect the torso area and its vitals — heart, lung and kidneys. The tracking of injuries will prove key in these studies. “Wound mapping” should tell the same story as the models, Rickey said.

Soldiers in theater also may have access to new technology that would allow them to independently determine the effectiveness of their armor. All equipment in theater currently must go through a scanner terminal to check for defects. A Small Business Innovative Research program is aimed at developing smart sensors that will allow soldiers to check their own armor plates for any damage not visible to the human eye.

The Army also plans to field the first next-generation sensors for its helmets this summer. The devices would be embedded in headgear to measure the acceleration of the head in six different axes during an accident or blast. To pull the data, one simply waves a wand over the helmet. Sensors also can be installed in a centralized facility such as a mess hall to remotely collect data from soldiers’ equipment. The information will be provided to the Medical Research and Material Command in Maryland for evaluation. It will help the Army identify the core cause of traumatic brain injuries, whether it is the result of one blast event or a series of small events.

“What we’re ultimately trying to get at is the max threshold for acceleration before we can predict a concussion,” Rickey said.

Pads inside current helmets are designed to reduce blunt-force trauma from head acceleration of 150 Gs at 10 feet per second. That’s the equivalent of someone being on his knees, passing out and having his head smack directly against the ground during the fall. The Army is working toward headgear that can protect against trauma that would be caused by acceleration of 150 Gs at 14.1 feet per second and as much as 17.3 feet per second.

A joint effort by the Army and Marine Corps, which has the lead on the project, is expected to bring new plastic helmets to troops this year. The helmet is made of ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene, “a leap-ahead technology for us,” Rickey said.

Prototypes of the helmet weigh slightly less than the current advanced combat helmet, which is made of ballistic fibers such as DuPont’s Kevlar. Early versions of the enhanced headgear failed ballistics tests. Officials have said they want the plastic helmet to be able to stop a 7.62mm round, the caliber used in the AK-47 assault rifle. More tests are planned, including ones in which shells or mortar rounds will explode over the heads of dummies wearing the helmets. Meanwhile, vendors are introducing new armor products independent of these efforts. See following story.

The plastic helmets showed a 50 percent improvement in protection against fragmentation during developmental testing, a Marine Corps Systems Command spokesman said. The design also consistently stopped penetration from a small-arms round. If future tests are successful, a full-rate production decision could be made by summer. If all goes smoothly, the Army plans to buy 200,000 helmets.

Meanwhile, the Army is at work on a capabilities development document for soldier protection that would roll a lot of the ideas and initiatives from PEO- Soldier into a concrete acquisition plan.

“Our soldiers clearly have superior body armor,” Rickey said. “The question is, ‘Do we dominate?’ We never want to be in a fair fight. We always want soldiers to walk out of that battle uninjured.”

Topics: Land Forces

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