Editor’s note: Back to the land stuff in time for Thanksgiving (at least here in America). Enjoy the long post to make up for all of the naval stuff
Let’s talk protective stuff for the infantryman. There are a mulitude of threats on the modern battlefield, including bullets and shell fragments, and protection from these threats has been a pretty consistent goal for armor designers. Of course, designing for those two threats is very difficult. Fragments are small and do not deform, and can be stopped by kevlar or similar materials. These materials are relatively soft and flexible, but they are heavier than normal fabrics used for uniforms. Bullets, or more specifically, rifle bullets, are a thornier problem. To stop those, you need ceramic plates and a padded backing. These ceramic plates are rigid (of course) and weigh several pounds apiece, so a stormtrooper-looking ensemble is not very practical. Any body armor also has to work with a soldier’s load bearing rig, which carries his ammunition and other stuff. So let’s start at the top and work our way down, shall we?
First, the helmet. We’ve come a long way since the Adrian helmet of 1915. Our helmet of choice is the American Enhanced Combat Helmet1 We’re going to break this one down by components. Let’s start with the shell. Our helmet shell is made of ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMWPE), and comes in a MICH-type2 cut. To understand what I mean by the MICH cut, we’ll have to step back a bit.
The Adrian helmet was the first modern combat helmet, and was based on the shape of firemen’s helmets used in Paris. When the Germans finally came around to the concept, they looked through medieval helmets to come up with the Stahlhelm design. This was the best shape of all helmet designs in World War I, but nobody wanted to look like the “evil Hun”, so they stuck with their own shapes. It was revisited for PASGT,3 when the US Army was making a new kevlar helmet. The Stahlhelm shape really does protect more. It’s just better than the M1 shape it was replacing. So the PASGT helmet was basically a Stahlhelm in modern kevlar. Cool. Except it’s kind of annoyingly large. When a soldier wearing the Interceptor Vest (early 2000s kit), went prone, the collar on the vest would push the helmet down so the brim went in the wearer’s eyes. Also, if you wanted to wear a headset and a helmet, you were out of luck. So the MICH-cut is a trimmed PASGT-cut, to accommodate larger armor vests and communications headsets.
Okay, so that’s the shape. Why not just get a MICH helmet? Because of that UHMWPE stuff. The ECH is thicker than earlier American composite helmets, but it can stop a 7.62x51mm rifle round at point-blank range. To be clear, the regular M80 ball ammo, not the AP stuff. Still. Seven point six two millimeter. Full. Metal. Jacket. And it’ll stop it. That’s freaking awesome. Plus it’s really resistant to fragments. In testing, the test gun was unable to get the fragments going fast enough to make 50% of them pass through.4 So against basic rifle threats and fragment threats, the ECH has you covered.
Internally, the ECH has pads and a four-point H-back strap to hold it on your head, like a bicycle helmet. This is more comfortable than a chinstrap and won’t fall over and hit you in the face if you bend over. So medics will keep their helmets on. Again, this design bit was cribbed from the earlier MICH helmet. A nape pad can be fitted to the ‘crossstrap’ of the H for some added comfort and fragment protection for the base of the neck. The pads are the Team Wendy Epic Air pad kit using their Zorbium foam. It’s a three-piece pad setup that comes in a few different sizes for comfort and providing adequate standoff between the helmet and the head. The Epic Air pads come with air channels to help with cooling.
There are a few other accessories of note. There’s a bracket on the front of the helmet to mount night vision equipment. Fabric helmet covers in standard Borgundian camouflage5 patterns are available, and come with velcro to mount IR recognition patches if desired. A counterweight can be fitted to the back of the helmet to offset the weight of night vision equipment.
Perfect. So that’s the head taken care of. On to the torso. Right now, inspired by foot operations in Afghanistan and a general desire to emulate SOCOM6, plate carriers are all the rage. Simply put, a plate carrier carries hard armor plates (duh) to protect your vital areas from getting perforated from rifle fire. This means front, back, and sometimes side plate pockets of your choice. The alternative is an armor carrier, which has some amount of soft armor (e.g. kevlar) to protect most of the torso from artillery fragments in addition to plate pockets. This is a pretty simple amount-of-protection v. weight tradeoff. What’s your expected threat? In Afghanistan, you’re walking a lot, so weight really sucks. Most of the threats are dudes with rifles. So you want rifle protection, screw the rest. In Iraq, you ride around in vehicles, and IEDs (and their friends high velocity fragments) are a big threat. Plus dudes with rifles. So you want plates and soft armor.
We’ve spilt a lot of virtual ink on IFVs. We’re pretty clearly a heavily mechanized force. And our expected operating theater is good old Europe in a conventional throwdown. I’m old school like that.7 We can expect plenty of artillery threats in addition to dudes with rifles. So armor carriers it is! They won’t provide immunity from shell fragments, but they do a great job of saving lives.
Previous drafts of this post had a highly optimized choice to shave off the last few ounces, but I’ve since reconsidered. This is general issue. So it needs to be relatively simple and reasonably priced and available in bulk right now. It needs to be reasonably modular, in that we might want to add components to get extra fragmentation protection or to upgrade to deal with the latest armor piercing rounds. We’d like a quick-release system in case someone falls in a river or to help medics get the armor out of the way in a hurry. And it needs to feature PALS webbing or some equivalent integral way of easily adding pouches for stuff. We’re not throwing load bearing equipment over the armor carrier.
Which brings us to our (somewhat boring) choice: the Gen 3 Improved Outer Tactical Vest. Lame name. It’s American. You’re shocked, I’m sure. It checks all of the boxes, and provides support for plenty of modular add-ons if desired. Plus, SAPI-pattern plates are the best shaped/constructed of the current ceramic plate options. At least for mass production. Again, we could find some improvements with respect to weight if we didn’t mind going with a smaller company, but then there would be production line questions. The IOTV G3 is made by BAE. No worries there.
Okay. So that’s armor carrier. Comes ready for SAPI-cut plates. It also comes with soft armor rated to stop things like fragments and 9 mm pistol bullets. So all we need now are plates. This is probably the easiest choice there is. There’s no good reason to go with ESAPI plates. They’re rated to stop the vast majority of AP rounds in 5.56 mm, 5.45 mm, and 7.62 mm (-x39 mm, -x51 mm, and -x54 mm) calibers. No sense making armor easy to defeat by switching from FMJ to AP issue rounds. In general, we’d expect front and rear plates only (i.e. no side plates) to be sufficient for most operational environments. Side plates may be distributed as needed like the other add-on components to the base IOTV unit.
1.) There’s also an Australian helmet called the Enhanced Combat Helmet. Ugh, naming. Anyway, ours is the American one, not the Aussie one. Sorry, Oz, the Yanks did this better.
2.) Modular Integrated Communications Helmet. Maybe it’s not for combat?
3.) Personal Armor System for Ground Troops. 80s vintage stuff.
4.) This measurement is much more statistically repeatable than trying to figure out at what velocity nothing will get through.
5.) There will be another article on these.
6.) Admittedly, they’re pretty cool guys.
7.) Judging by recent events in the Donbass, I’m also avant-garde like that.
I’ve always wondered if it were not better to provide a lesser degree of protection over a larger part of the body than a higher one over a smaller portion. The abdomen may not be a critical area, but it’s very sensitive, and has a debilitating effect if hit. Given that artillery is the main killer in war since napoleonic times, I’d be tempted to give, say, lvl III protection over the torso, abdomen, back and large blood-vessel areas.
Dyneema for the win. It’s extraordinarily light, so it could be used to cover larger portions of the body. Also has good multi-hit capabilities.
Conversely, it’s pretty expensive from what I know (twice the price of ceramic and three times that of AR 500 steel) and does not stop higher caliber threats (I’ve tried finding UHMWPE armor that has a lvl III rating, but most stop at IIIA).
It’s doable-ish, given the US-ECH helmet. At least from a technological standpoint, no word on cost of those. You’re more likely to see it used in conjunction with other materials for hard plates rather than alone, to get protection from the more higher powered rifle rounds.
The regular SAPI plate was basically Level 3(+). 4 lbs medium, 4.6 lbs large. Replaced by the ESAPI plate for want of better protection in Iraq against IED fragmentation, if I recall correctly. (possibly also more protection against SVD/PKM rounds, but I don’t recall citations on those).
Anyway, the problem with protecting major blood vessels is that they tend to be on bits that move. Neck, radial arteries, and femoral arteries will bleed profusely if poked, and protecting them gets in the way.
Also, if you’re looking at fragmentation protection and don’t care so much about rifle rounds, you can get away with Level IIIA (i.e. soft) armor. The NIJ Level IIIA standard is pretty close to the military soft armor protection standard, except LIIIA also has to stop .44 magnum rounds.
If you’re looking to play around yourself, the lightest UHMWPE soft armor formulation I’m aware of is Point Blank’s Alpha Elite Black, which weighs 0.79 pounds per square foot for Level IIIA protection.
Other problems to be aware of with dyneema/UHMWPE is issues with high temperatures. It degrades rapidly above 170F, and is also susceptible to contact shots (same reason). Not a dealbreaker in a mil application, just something to be aware of.