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New Protection Ahead in Helmets, Body Armor

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 20, 2003 – New, reinforced helmets and body armor being fielded to the military today represent just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what's on the drawing board for protecting warfighters of the future.

Tomorrow's fighting force will have far superior protective systems that provide enhanced capabilities while imposing less weight on the user, according to officials at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center at Natick, Mass. The center conducts research and product development for all the military services.

Robert Kinney, director of Natick's Individual Protection Directorate, said engineers are looking at new materials and composites that offer enhanced protection with less weight.

Already, the Marine Corps is fielding a new helmet that, thanks to new materials, offers 6 percent more fragmentation protection and the ability to stop 9 mm rounds, Natick officials said. The helmet, at just over 3 pounds, weighs about a half-pound less than the previous Kevlar helmet, introduced in the early 1980s.

A similar but somewhat streamlined helmet developed by the Army for special operations forces, the MICH or "modular integrated communication helmet," also provides increased ballistic protection. Kinney said the Army has expressed "tremendous interest" in fielding the new helmet to other forward-deployed troops, including the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq.

Looking a decade down the road, warfighters' helmets are expected to become even more impenetrable to enemy rounds, while offering an array of added protections.

The Objective Force Warrior program which LeeAnn Barkhouse, business liaison for the program, describes as a "system of systems" the Army is developing for warfighters in 2010 and beyond integrates thermal sensors, video cameras and chemical and biological sensors within the helmet. It also includes a visor that can act as a "heads-up display monitor" equivalent to two 17-inch computer monitors in front of the wearer's eyes, Barkhouse said.

Similarly, Natick officials said new technology is improving warfighters' body armor systems. The new Interceptor body armor system is in wide use by the Army and Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq, where it "is saving lives left and right," Kinney said.

The vest, which the Marine Corps began fielding in late 1999, includes two 4- pound inserts that protect the vital organs against 9 mm submachine gun fire at point-blank range, according to Dee Townes, project officer for Natick's Marine Corps team. The vest also includes removable flaps that cover the groin, throat and neck.

Lightweight boron-carbide protective plates make the Interceptor weigh just over 16 pounds, compared to 25 pounds for the flak jacket, the previous body armor.

But Kinney said Natick is exploring different materials and composites of materials that will provide increased ballistic protection while shedding as many as 6 more pounds from the vest. "Sixteen pounds is still too heavy," he said. "Our goal is to get a one-third to one-half reduction in weight. If we can get under 10 pounds, that would more reasonable."

The body armor system being developed for the Objective Force Warrior program incorporates next-generation boron-carbide ceramic plates that will weigh 10 to 30 percent less than those in the Interceptor, while delivering equal or greater protection.

Dutch DeGay, equipment specialist for the Objective Force Warrior program, said new construction processes are being explored to shape the plates so they fit more snugly against the chest and spine.

In addition, he said Natick plans to replace the 20-plus layers of Kevlar in the Interceptor vest with a new M-5 fiber that will weight about one-third less.

The self-adjusting vest will position the protective plates about two inches from the torso, DeGay said, to reduce chest injuries or bruising in the event that the wearer takes a hit, he said.

"Our goal is to create a protective system that is lower profile, lower bulk and lower weight," he said. "We want it to be like a second skin, so the warfighter barely even knows that it's there, but that offers the protections needed in a combat environment."

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