Why Losing Weight Is an Uphill Battle for Military Hardware
It is the Holy Grail of military hardware buyers: Trucks, tanks and body armor that offer greater protection at less weight.
"One of our biggest concerns is the weight of equipment," said Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., assistant commandant of the Marine Corps.
For Marines, who typically move their equipment by ship, the heavier the gear, the greater the transportation hassles. Current armored trucks weigh 20,000 to 40,000 pounds, Dunford said. "We’d like to get that kind of protection in a much lighter vehicle."
Same issues apply to individual clothing and equipment. "It is much too heavy," Dunford told defense industry attendees at this week's Navy League symposium in National Harbor, Md.
Decades-long efforts by the U.S. military to lessen the weight of weapon systems have been fruitless so far. The alleged reasons: Cutting-edge materials — including ceramics, polymers, new metal blends and composites — are either too expensive or fail to meet rigid military specifications.
The National Research Council recently conducted a sweeping study of the availability of lightweight materials for military equipment, titled, “Application of Lightweighting Technology to Military Vehicles, Vessels, and Aircraft.”
The report offers a mix of good and bad news for Marines and for other branches of the military. From a technological standpoint, lightweight materials do exist that could satisfy military hardware demands. But the Pentagon is not able to take advantage of the available technology because of its acquisition rules, red tape and general unawareness of what the market has to offer, researchers suggest.
“The review found good examples of light-weighting implementation in military vehicles, but there is still much that can be done,” the report said.
One the barriers that the NRC panel identified to greater use of lightweight technologies is the extended period required for materials development and qualification. Pentagon procurement regulations “require that technologies be relatively mature by the initiation of a program. Hence, the considerable time and cost required to reach the requisite level of maturity for a new material must be expended in the pre-acquisition phase, before a program is actually initiated,” the report said. “As a result, the development and qualification cycle for materials is often out of sync with the design cycle for vehicles, making it difficult to insert new materials early in the design cycle.”
But scientists recognized that high cost and manufacturing capabilities do create obstacles to the application of sophisticated new materials in weapon systems.
“The use of advanced materials, such as magnesium and titanium alloys and polymer matrix composites, can be hampered by high costs, manufacturing challenges, and the lack of domestic, commercially available supplies,” the study said. “It can even be difficult to obtain high-strength steels, which, when combined with manufacturing innovations, can contribute to reducing weight and enhancing performance.”
Another impediment is that “neither the specification of technical requirements for contractors nor the acquisition process for new vehicles and equipment promotes innovation,” the study said. “Detailed specifications offer no flexibility to meet performance requirements in creative ways. When several contractors are involved in the development of a vehicle or system, poor communication can result in less-than-optimal solutions.”
Most Defense Department development and acquisition programs for vehicles are “risk-averse, resulting in the exclusion of new technologies and materials” that could lighten the equipment, the report noted. As a result of the Pentagon’s lengthy acquisition processes, “changes in threats and operational requirements in areas of conflict can outpace development of new military vehicles and vehicle technologies.”
The panel recommends that the Pentagon make greater use of digital simulations to expedite designs. Programs should “integrate high-fidelity models of materials, processes, and performance into a comprehensive digital system-design process for future air, maritime, and land vehicles,” the study said. “Although many individual models exist or are being developed, these models often are not integrated, and the focus of a larger organization such as the DoD is required to facilitate coordination.”
The cost of fielding lighter military systems is high in part because production volumes are low and performance requirements are highly exacting, the panel said. Also, the focus on reducing acquisition costs has boosted reliance on foreign technology sources, thus eroding U.S. strategic manufacturing advantages, the study said. “The problems are exacerbated by the lack of parallel commercial markets that could significantly reduce the costs of technology development and make initial investments more attractive.”
The study suggested that the Defense Department should tap into its existing manufacturing technology, or ManTech, program, for ideas on how to create domestic sources of advanced materials. The Pentagon also should “explore the merits and requirements of parallel commercial markets.” The panel believes that there is “insufficient high-level DoD awareness of and strategic vision for ensuring sustained domestic supplies of materials” that would be needed to lighten the weight of weapon systems.
The cost of materials extraction, reduction, and processing can be prohibitive, the report said, and there is a “lack of domestic manufacturing infrastructure to fabricate the primary metal alloys or the intermediate engineering forms, or to manufacture final, shaped products.”
Although there is growing recognition of the importance of individual metals and rare-earth elements, the domestic availability, supply, sustainment, maintenance, and manufacturing of lighter materials, such as high-performance silicon carbide fibers, thick-section magnesium, and polyethylene fibers, the study said, must become “targeted priorities” of the Defense Department.
The Defense Production Act Title III program includes a number of materials projects that would be relevant, such as production of SiC powder for ceramic armor, low-cost titanium, and continuous filament boron fiber, the study said, “but does not include some of the materials and manufacturing processes that the committee believes would have the greatest impact on light-weighting.”
The panel proposed that the Defense Department partner with other agencies to create a federal investment plan to spur domestic production of advanced materials.
The cumbersome weight of military equipment also has created problems for deployed soldiers, who are saddled with 30 to 40 pounds of body armor.
In a separate study recently published by The RAND Corp., researchers concluded that there are no quick fixes to produce lighter protection for troops in the field. Congress requested the study in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011 in response to frequent complaints from military constituents that body armor is too heavy, often accounting for 30 percent of the total load that is carried into combat. Soft body armor vests with ceramic plate inserts weigh between 27 and 38 pounds.
“Congress’s perception is that the Department of Defense has been slow in developing and deploying lighter-weight body armor,” said the RAND study.
The U.S. military is unlikely to embrace new body-armor technologies, as it would fear increasing the risk of casualties, the report said. “Today, no ‘silver bullet’ material solution exists that will greatly reduce body armor weight,” the study noted. “Further reductions in weight will require a significant investment of money and time.” And even if lighter materials were used, the best-case scenario would be a 10 percent reduction in weight, assuming overall protection is to remain constant, RAND researchers concluded. “Even this small increment will be quite difficult to achieve.”
The study urges the Defense Department to provide more financial incentives for the private sector to innovate. “Performance — including weight — should be included as a contract award selection criterion when awarding production contracts for body armor. Currently, products that meet the threshold criteria are selected solely on a cost basis by the Defense Logistics Agency, so prospective producers have no incentive to improve body armor performance beyond the threshold.”
The Pentagon also should consider looking for alternatives from foreign suppliers. Current “Buy American” laws restrict purchases of non-U.S. technology by the Defense Department, but RAND experts believe that the Pentagon should seek legislative relief and tap foreign suppliers for ideas.
“Exceptions should be made to the Berry and Kissell Amendments, which limit the design and manufacturing of soft body armor intended for U.S. service members to American and Canadian producers,” said the report. “If offshore sources offer improved body armor solutions, they should not be denied to our service members.”