Published in the Modern Soldier Compendium 2019/2020 – Body armour and helmet designs are advancing to give today’s soldiers lighter and better protection.
Soldier survivability is a priority. It is not just the desire to reduce or eliminate the injury or death of one’s people but also the adverse impacts that casualties have on the unit’s ability to successfully execute its assigned mission. At the small infantry unit – typically between nine and 13 – each soldier has a key role to play and each casualty will have an impact on overall team cohesion and effectiveness.
Looking strictly at protecting the soldier from being injured by a fragment from an explosion or bullet, the best solution would seem to be the provision of personal body armour. If this is the case then increasing the armour’s penetration resistance should further enhance survivability. However, the field reality, as pointed out by John Yancey, deputy, US Army Soldier Requirements Division, Manoeuvre Capabilities Development and Integration Directorate (MCDID) is that “additional body armour can also restrict the soldier’s movement and actions while also adding weight that reduces his agility and endurance.”
Reducing weight is also a factor that can enhance survivability by allowing the soldier to move more quickly with greater agility. According to a May 2017 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on personal protective equipment improvement efforts, US Marines fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan carried an average 53kg (117lb) load, well above the standard approach march load of 32.6kg (72lb). This resulted in slower reaction to a contact and reduced endurance in a combat situation.
One body armour designer suggested that a key influence in the trends in body armour configuration preferences is driven by the experiences of the field users. Given recent experiences, the emphasis on counter-insurgency (COIN) operations has led to a focus on protecting against bullets. This has lead toward what one ballistic expert referred to as a minimalist approach to body armour – lighter vests that offer better mobility but which usually hold only ballistic or strike plates with little or no soft armour coverage. The US Army Soldier Plate Carrier System (SPCS) reflects this move while its next generation Modular Scalable Vest (MSV) is essentially a ‘plates-only’ body armour variant. While these are certainly lighter they also cover less than the previous Improved Outer Tactical Vest used by the Army. The question is how will these ‘minimal armour’ vests fare in near-peer conflict where artillery is employed? Here soft armour fragmentation protection could be essential.
It should also be remembered that absolute protection is not possible. For example, as was make clear in Syria, the Russians have fielded sniper rifles including the SV98 and SVD that are capable of defeating even the latest body armour at virtually all ranges. So acceptance of some risk is necessary and a balance needs to be struck.
SPCS and MSV
Yancey suggested that the US Army has recognised that “simply designing individual body armour which is intended for use by all soldiers was not the optimum approach”. To a large degree this ‘one size (or design) fits all’ was the case with its earlier Personnel Armour System for Ground Troops (PASGT). The SPCS and MSV are moves to provide more customisable body armour. The idea is to provide a lightweight alternative rather than a replacement for the Improved Outer Tactical Vest used in the Interceptor body armour system. The US Army chose the KDH Magnum TAC-1 system to fill its requirements for soldiers in Afghanistan. According to the company, it is “highly adjustable for improved fit and can be adjusted ‘on-the-run’ without removing the vest with its side adjustable straps.” The vest can be adjusted real time as mission requirements change. It uses the latest Enhanced Small Arms Protective Insert (ESAPI) plates which weight 5.9kg (13lb) in their largest size. US and most western plates are made of high-strength ceramics.
The Modular Scalable Vest was introduced in 2018 to replace the Improved Outer Tactical Vest (IOTV). The MSV is 11kg (25lb) lighter when fully loaded with ballistic plates which weigh 2.2kg (5lb) less than the IOTV. The biggest difference is that MSV is designed to be scaled up or down depending on the threat and mission requirements. The first tier is concealable soft body armour. To this can be adding armour plates offering additional impact protection. The next level includes a plate carrier and ballistic plates, while the last adds a ‘ballistic combat shirt with built in neck, shoulder and pelvic protection and a belt system to move items from the vest to the hips.’ KDH Defense Systems received the first contract to provide MSV in June 2018.
The latest US Marine Corps plate carrier vest system is designed with more efficient weight distribution to allow the Marine to scale the system dependent upon mission requirements. It consists of a cummerbund style main vest with the option of using the groin and lower back protection of the IOTV (Interceptor). The system is a two-point cut away design with fully integrated side protection, communication routing channels and increased MOLLE attachment points. The plate carrier vest system is an alternative to the larger IMTV vest.
In June 2019 the Marines awarded a contract to Point Blank Enterprises for new lightweight body armour plates that are around 3.8kg (8.5lb). These are designed to be worn in low intensity or counterinsurgency style conflicts. Major Ken Kunze, a spokesman for Marine Corps Systems Command, shared that the Corps expects to begin fielding the new plates in early 2020.
IOVT replaced the Interceptor Body Armour (IBA) fielded by the United States Army. KDH Defense, the manufacturer of the IOVT, shared that “it has been modified several times based on real-world combat feedback.” The vest can use both the Enhanced Small Arms Protective Insert (E-SAPI) and ESBI Side-SAPI plates. The system is designed to have components added allowing full-up system with groin protection, lower back protection, deltoid protection and neck-throat protection.
The German Bundeswehr’s standard vest is part of it’s the IdZ Infanterist Modifiziert (Infantryman of the Future). It is modular using both SK4 plates and SK1 soft body armour and weighs 10.5-12kg (4.7-5.4lb). Neck/throat, groin, shoulder and lower back components can be added.
Russia’s military standard issue is the 6B23 body armour which uses a combination of soft armour and steel plates and has groin protection. The later 6B43 and 6B45 are lighter and protect the neck and surrounding areas but use a removable flap for lower coverage. The 6B45 is modular, has scalable protection similar to the MSV and uses ceramic plates. The use of steel or titanium plates, rather than ceramic, have the disadvantage of a projectile hit breaking up with the resulting shrapnel libel to cause injury.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have adopted and widely fielded body armour. In fact, China is a major exporter of body armour for commercial/security uses. Many design features are similar to US and Western designs including the overlapping front, side adjustment strips, detachable throat and groin protector, hard plate pockets and MOLLE. Chinese hard plates are either ballistic steel (which is heavier than ceramic) or in their higher-end plates, aluminium oxide ceramic.
The 3M F70 was introduced in October 2018 to address the need to improve wearer comfort while maintaining the required ballistic protection levels. At 0.77kg (1.68lb) for the high cut and 0.87kg (1.91lb) for the mid cut version it is lighter than the current Combat Helmet II L110 but provides greater protection than the other current Ultra-Light Weight Bump Helmet N49. Special attention has been given to both lowering its weight and its stability on the head even when the wearer is running or performing other activities, including parachute jumps.
The US Army is introducing its new Integrated Head Protection System (IHPS) – a five percent lighter weight helmet system composed of helmet/maxillofacial and passive hearing protection with increased blunt impact performance. First production deliveries began in mid 2018 from manufacturer Ceradyne, a 3M company.
The US Marine Corps awarded a contract in June 2018 to Gentex to provide the Enhanced Combat Helmet, or ECH, to every Marine. The ECH is the same weight as the standard Advanced Combat Helmet but is capable of stopping rifle rounds and fragmentation.
The ECH consists of a ballistic shell, suspension pads and four-point retention system. In addition to those components, a reversible helmet cover, night vision goggle bracket and attachment hardware.
The US Marines announced on 4 June 2019 that they are seeking a new lightweight and integrated helmet. This requirement for an Integrated Helmet System (IHS) is aimed at improving “the integration of several current and future head-borne systems such as optics and hearing enhancement/protection devices,” said a spokesman for Marine Corps Systems Command. It must be between 1.31kg (2.91lb) for a small helmet, to 1.74kg (3.84lb) for an extra-large. It should be optimised to allow power and/or data to flow to the attachments while minimising bulk.
The Russian lightweight 6B47 helmet from Tehinkom is part of the RATNIK (Warrior) combat equipment programme and is being issued to army units. It has a night vision goggle bracket and side rail. The helmet has an outer composite shell, dry aramid fibre and inner composite sheath weighs 1kg and resists a 9mm pistol shot at five meters. It is issued with a balaclava and digital pattern woodland green and snow helmet covers.
DSM Dyneema in Holland developed Ultra-High Molecular Weight Polyethylene (UHMWPE) which is substantially lighter than Kevlar, and is one of the primary ballistic fabrics today. It can not only be used in soft armour applications but also used to produce plates. These plates would weigh nearly half of comparable ceramic plates although are claimed to be more durable. It is stated that they are fully exchangeable with earlier ceramic or steel plates. The plates have positive buoyancy and are multi-hit capable.