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The Bomb Suit's Always Been a Matter of Trust

Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 25, 2001 – With a plan in mind and tools in hand, explosive ordnance disposal soldiers spend about five minutes to render safe a bomb that threatens lives or property. They need to trust the suit of armor they wear to survive a detonation should the plan fail.

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An explosive charge hangs in front of a test dummy wearing a concept protective bomb suit at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. The manikin is equipped with sensors that will allow engineers to measure blast effects on the suit and its wearer.

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

"A big issue with EOD members is knowing the bomb suit is going to protect what it's supposed to," said Steven Herman, EOD combat developer at the Army Combined Arms Support Command at Fort Lee, Va. "The legacy bomb suit is at that stage in its life where the EOD community has lost confidence in its protective capabilities."

Confidence should return with the Advanced Bomb Suit developed by Product Manager-Soldier Equipment at the Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass., and the Combined Arms Support Command of Fort Lee, Va. The new suit will replace the legacy PS-820 bomb suit beginning next summer.

"The combat and materiel developers have adroitly quantified and qualified the threat faced today," said project director Barry Hauck of Product Manager-Soldier Equipment. "Both the combat and materiel developers have a great knowledge of what's required by the EOD community and what's available from the marketplace. It's helped to enhance the integrated product team's credibility with the program."

The Army-led program is also of interest to all military and civilian bomb disposal experts. The new suit represents the latest in design and technology. "The leap in design and comfort may become the new industry standard," Hauck said.

The current suit was fielded in 1988 to Army EOD units. Up to then, their main protection came from a flak vest and helmet, according to Herman, who served 21 years in the Air Force as an EOD technician. Although PS-820 suits still perform as designed, they needed many improvements.

The PS-820's 61 pounds of aramid fiber armor, fiberglass and polycarbonate plastic are unevenly distributed, which could throw a technician off-balance during delicate operations. The rear of the wearer's legs is uncovered. Besides fogging up on a cool day, the face shield's shape distorts depth perception, and its bulk is clumsy and intrusive.

"The face shield is very top heavy and unstable," said Michael Zielinski, lead project engineer at Product Manager-Soldier Equipment. "(EOD soldiers) lean over a lot, and that instability creates both physical and psychological discomfort. It just doesn't work for them."

The new suit uses a compact face shield attached to a protective helmet instead of a contoured face shield attached to the top of a chest plate. A ventilation system helps clear the visor and provides fresh air. Instead of having to handle a separate radio, bomb experts will find the new helmet's built-in intercom provides hands-free communication with the command post and other team members.

The PS-820 was designed and made to withstand fire, heat and impact from high-speed fragmentation when disarming or disposing of unexploded ordnance, such as artillery shells, grenades, and improvised devices such as pipe, letter and car bombs. The new advanced suit increases protection to the wearer's upper legs, abdomen, head and spine.

"The current suit has very little impact protection," Zielinski said. "An initial blast-wave impact to the head and chest or getting thrown down on the ground can cause a serious or lethal injury. Armor on the new suit covers the back of the body and gives them head, leg and spinal protection if they hit the ground.

"This suit won't make you invincible in all situations, but because of our early research into documented injuries to bomb technicians, we have a better understanding of what's required and have established benchmarks for future design improvements," Zielinski said.

Although the new suit is expected to weigh slightly more than the PS-820, it will use the new generation of ballistic armor material. It protects better, and weight is well-distributed for comfort.

"As with all personal body armor systems, we always need to make trade-offs between weight and protection vs. comfort and mobility," Hauck said.

Technicians may wear the suit for up to one hour during a mission, Herman said.

If desired, the new suit can accommodate a personal ice cooling system that circulates cold water through a vest to lower core body temperature.

A protective suit also can be worn underneath the bomb suit when the threat involves a chemical or biological component.

Because of the inherent hazards of bomb disposal, EOD soldiers try to avoid donning the suit as much as possible.

"Time-permitting and if the situation allows, doctrine requires the EOD soldier to attempt to remotely render safe a bomb using robots to X-ray a package or take some action to reduce or neutralize the hazard," Hauck said.

The new suit can come off within 20 seconds to help transport an injured soldier for medical treatment.

Another requirement is that the new suit support a hands-free light, helpful when supplemental light is needed.

More than 2,200 bomb incidents were reported to the FBI Bomb Data Center in 1997, according to the Justice Department. When human contact with the bomb is necessary, this newest protection has features that will keep the wearer's attention on the job, not the suit. That's what may count the most.

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Related Sites:
U.S. Army Combined Arms Support Command (CASCOM)
U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center

Click photo for screen-resolution imageThe PS-820 bomb suit lacks any protection for the back of the wearer's legs, a shortcoming to be corrected by a new, advanced suit. The protrusions on either side of the model's head are the "wings" of a curved face shield that mounts on the PS-820's chest plate.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageThe current PS-820 bomb suit becomes top heavy and unstable when its wide face shield is attached to its chest plate.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA concept bomb suit exhibits an example of a compact, helmet-mounted face shield.  
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