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Body Armor Blues

Sci Fi Armor a Ways Off

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

If you were hoping that shear thickening fluids, carbon nanotubes and lightweight flexible armor was just around the corner, you’ll need to put those hopes on hold and keep reading your sci-fi books.

Despite the US and allied militaries’ best efforts to lighten one of the biggest culprits of a trooper’s heavy load, armor manufacturers are having a hard time making quantum leaps in increased protection and weight savings.

I spoke with reps from First Choice armor on the floor of SHOT Show in Vegas last week and they described how they’d cracked the nut of shaving some ounces while keeping bullet-stopping ballistic performance by tweaking materials and weaves and developing some hybrids.

First Choice’s new Level IIIA vest comes in just under the one pound per square foot gold standard for protection — at .93 pounds per ft2. They also showed me a pretty sweet 10“x12” Level III+ plate that weighs just 3.8 lbs using what they termed a “unidirectional-ceramic hybrid” — which basically means a boron carbide/spectra-dyneema sandwich.

Basically the rep told me the industry is still struggling with requirements for continuously more resistant armor with no weight penalty. The reality of today’s material science means companies like First Choice get requests from the military that say “I want armor that can stop this exotic round and weigh less than current vests…” a near impossible feat.

I asked the ballistics expert about the fetish with “flexible” armor solutions and he said his company spent some money and about a year looking into it, but they found no easy way around the weight problems and coverage gaps that scaled systems present.

“We gave up on the effort for now,” he said.

Perhaps that’s why only one company,Pinnacle, played in the Army’s F-SAPI search last year. No one else could make a solution that didn’t weigh a ton (or cost a fortune, as Alan Bain admitted to us).

Sor for now, it looks like the military is going to have to shave armor weight at the margins — that is until science can find ways to manufacture nanostructures in quantities and costs that enable a Level IV vest at t-shirt weights.

– Christian

Army Launches Examination of Armor Testing

Friday, November 20th, 2009


If the service thought they’d buried the issue of armor testing, they forgot to ask their new Secretary.

ArmySec John McHugh announced today he had enlisted the services of the National Research Council to examine the service’s armor testing procedures and compliance protocols in light of a recent GAO report calling into question the Army’s adherence to QA standards.

Secretary of the Army John McHugh announced today that the National Research Council (NRC) will perform an independent assessment of the Army’s body armor testing, following last month’s recommendation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) for an independent review. The NRC functions under the auspices of the National Academies, a private, nonprofit institution that provides science, technology, and health policy advice to the federal government and the public on critical national issues.

Under an agreement between the National Academies and the director of operational test and evaluation (DOT&E), the Department of Defense’s final independent authority on survivability testing of body armor, the NRC will perform an independent assessment of ongoing body armor testing. The purpose of the NRC assessment is to ensure that the Army maintains the highest standards for testing processes and protocols, thus addressing concerns raised by the GAO about current testing procedures.

On the face of it, this is a good thing. As ballistics experts will tell you, there’s still some voodoo in the ballistic testing science and one more set of eyeballs on the problem wouldn’t hurt. Maybe at the end of this saga the Pentagon can adopt one standard testing protocol for all military body armor and the notional threats to it so there’ll be a bit more confidence in the results and less objectivity.

Walkoff question: Will they open the flexible armor testing standards and procedures can of worms?

– Christian

Pinnacle’s New Armor

Thursday, November 19th, 2009


Not really…but got you to look, right?

My colleague Bryant Jordan ran across this photo and passed it along to Defense Tech just to show how very far we’ve come with ballistic protection.

According to a caption from the archival section at Corbis, these garcons are French soldiers of the Army Ordnance Department showing off the test articles of their WW I-era body armor.

I can’t even see what this is made of, but it sure looks like cold rolled steel and leather. I’m digging the groin protector and the jaunty dude on the right with a 45 hole right in his junk.

Also, what gives on the 1984-esque eye shades built into the helmet?

I went on The Google for this one and came up empty. But I did run across a FAS entry that references the US Army’s experimentation with body armor. It was called the Brewster Body Shield (sure beats “Interceptor”) and looked more like a bad 1950s B movie robot costume than a combat ready ballistic outfit.


But it could stop bullets…

The Brewster Body Shield, was made of chrome nickel steel, weighed 40 pounds, and consisted of a breastplate and a headpiece. This armor would withstand Lewis machinegun bullets at 2,700 f.p.s. but was unduly clumsy and heavy.

I’ll say. Makes Dragon Skin look positively featherweight by comparison (I’m just pulling your leg Murray).

It’s interesting to see how body armor technology has evolved, and no doubt we still have a long way to go. But pictures like this offer a glimpse of what was state of the are nearly 100 years ago.

– Christian

It Was Dragon Skin All Along

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009


I just got back from an hour and a half briefing with PEO Soldier Gen. Pete Fuller and top PMs for the service’s primary gear buying office.

I’ll be spiraling out tidbits throughout the day, but one thing I wanted to throw out there was to close the loop on the flexible small arms protective insert and vest testing issue and the Army’s rejection of the system as portrayed in the GAO report.

It turns out that only one vendor submitted a design to fulfill the Army’s requirement for a flexible armor system and you guessed it, it was Pinnacle, maker of Dragon Skin.

According to officials in the room, the vest suffered “catastrophic failures” during preliminary design review tests at Aberdeen a year ago.

“The flexible vendor had a direct penetration,” Fuller said flatly. Because of feedback from the Hill, the Army opened up the contract to any vendor — not just hard plate makers — to provide X and E SAP capability.

“We have shown that flexible is not working the way everybody thought,” Fuller added.

But the Army hasn’t given up on a flexible armor system…

“Fort Benning has asked me pretty regularly ‘is there anything out there that would work in a weight we’d like?’” said the program manager for Army armor, Col, Bill Cole. “We’re still looking. We haven’t ruled it out completely but we haven’t seized on anything that meets our requirements.”

– Christian

FSAPV-E and X Don’t Meet Expectations

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009


Well, there’s more to the GAO report on Army ESAPI plate testing than meets the eye.

With only a couple references thrown in early on, it’s easy to miss it. But a sharp eyed researcher at the Project on Government Oversight who called me today to ask a few questions did my job better than I and raised an issue I should have pounced on.

It turns out, the Army did its ESAPI tests at Aberdeen instead of HP White not because DOT&E requested it, but because “one manufacturer of flexible small arms protective vests, which had failed previous testing conducted for the Program Executive Office (PEO) Soldier at an NIJ-certified facility, made allegations that the PEO Soldier and the facility had wrongly failed its designs.”

Okay folks, who do you think that is?

So it turns out our reporting in October of ’08 was spot on that the Army deemed the technology too immature to field deployable Flexible-SAP systems. The GAO fills in some blanks, saying (not sure how many) vendors sent in samples of a Flexible Small Arms Protective Vest-Enhanced and FSAPV-X and shot them at Aberdeen between February and June of ’08.

In October 2008, on the basis of the Preliminary Design Model testing results, the Army awarded four 5-year indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contracts at a total of over $8 billion for the production of the ESAPI and the XSAPItwo categories of ceramic plates. No FSAPV-E or FSAPV-X solutions passed the testing.

Now this gets back to our boy Allan Bain’s contention that flexible systems need a whole new test methodology different from the Army’s current one (that failed the FSAPs in ’08)…but that’s a debate for another post.

(Gouge: MS)

– Christian

Whose Test is the Best?

Monday, October 19th, 2009


In another case of damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t, the Army’s getting zinged by the GAO on its armor testing procedure.

We reported on the investigation that prompted this GAO look earlier this year, but the long and the short of it is that government auditors found flaws in how the Army was testing the first prototypes of its more powerful AP-round-stopping X-SAPI.

The GAO recommended a host of independent audits, test procedure modifications and other “oversight” as it normally does. And the Army, in a statement, largely agreed with the idea that more oversight is better:

The Department of the Army announced today that it has established additional quality control measures to further ensure that body armor testing documentation and procurement processes are rigorous, consistent, and use available best practices. To this end, the Army has added several quality control positions to include a Senior Executive Service position as the quality assurance director of personal protective equipment. This new senior-level position will report directly to the Army Acquisition Executive. These changes address issues raised in a GAO report…

In the interest of full disclosure, I was invited to attend an Army press briefing on their response to the GAO report on Friday but got tied up and couldn’t make it.

The bottom line remains what I indicated last year when the IG found test flaws: armor testing is as much art as it is science. The GAO wants oversight independent of the government, while others level sharp criticism over the Army’s continued use of HP White Labs in Street, MD, for its armor testing — believing doing so would make their results more unbiased since Aberdeen is essentially an Army command.

Now the GAO says Aberdeen is jacked up…ugh…

The armor testing community is a small one, I can think of only three labs in the US with testing experience for personal body armor with government contracts. With the science of armor materials and designs clashing constantly with threat modalities the ability to verify product effectiveness is constantly changing. I think the testers’ heads are in the right place, but clearly there needs to be one standard and some over the shoulder checking.

As duplicitous as the Army can be with its armor claims (“The Best Body Armor in the World Bar None”), I tend to believe that since the microscope on armor and testing has swung so squarely on the service, they’re loath to bob and weave to save their own skin on this one. But we’ll see…

– Christian

New Armor Passes Tough Test

Thursday, June 4th, 2009


You all might remember we reported a new kind of flexible body armor being developed by pre-Dragon Skin designer Allan Bain back in October.

At the time, Bain had tested his armor against some pretty mean armor-piercing rounds (a Swiss-made armor piercing round that is more powerful than the one specified by the Army) shattering the tiles but slowing down the round enough to keep it from penetrating the Dyneema backing.

Bain told me the other day he had just subjected a redesigned version of the discs to shots from a “surrogate” M993 AP round with 160 grains each at 3,014 and 3,061 feet per second and the discs held up. That’s about 20 percent more kinetic energy than the threat the Army is building the X-SAPI to defeat, Bain told me.

He’s been invited to test the new “Skaalar Exoskin Gen 4+” at H.P. White labs by the Army’s top body armor guru in July, in which “the Army will see the first flexible system that has no weight penalty as compared to the XSAPI plate that is in production now.”

As you might remember, the Army has walked back its urgent request for for plates that are stronger than the current E-SAPI and has said it would stockpile a limited run of plates in Kuwait in case the more deadly threat emerges in greater numbers.

But clearly, if you’ve worn body armor at all, a flexible system is the way to go, and Army officials have admitted it to me on several occasions. It’s just that weight and durability have been a constant problem.

We’ll keep you updated on how the tests go, but DT wishes Bain luck on his upcoming tests.

– Christian

Corps Moves to Reduce Armor Burden

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009


Note to insurgents: hit the treadmill. The Marines are about to get a few steps quicker.

Reacting to injuries caused by over weighted body armor and security improvements in some combat zones, the Marine Corps is adjusting the way it equips Leathernecks in the field with personal protective equipment.

The service is shifting the decision making down the chain of command and instituting a graduated armor scale in the coming weeks for the promise of a lighter load to reduce injuries and hopefully quicken the feet of Marines in the field.

The first move, effective immediately, will push control to lieutenant colonels in deciding what amount of personal protective equipment Marines will wear for a given mission.

“Recognizing that body armor is modular and scalable, [we’ll] try and leverage that by empowering our commanders to make the appropriate decision with regards to what composition of body armor their Marines will wear,” said Maj. Tom Wood, infantry advocate for the plans, policies and operations branch of Marine Corps headquarters in Washington.

Previously, the decision for the body armor composition Marines wore into the field rested in the hands of colonels. The Corps hopes devolved decision making to the equivalent of battalion commanders will translate to a more flexible policy.

“Our battalion and squadron commanders are really the right individuals to make the decision with regards to balancing weight versus protection in a given operating environment,” Wood told Military​.com in an exclusive interview.

Wood trumpeted “increased tactical mobility” as a key justification for the new move.

“What you are going to see, undoubtedly, is the ability of the average Marine to move quicker and enhance his tactical mobility and thereby the unit can move from point to point quicker,” Wood said.

Combatant commanders will still have the authority to issue theater– or region-wide guidance on the level of personal protective equipment, but Wood hopes that “the reduced level of violence of this new authority may help stir some discussion between Marine force commanders in Iraq and their joint force commander supervisors.“

In January of last year, Corps commanders in Iraq were pushing to shed the body armor load of their grunts by making neck guards, groin protectors, side plates and even helmets optional in some areas of Iraq. But they were shut down by higher-level Army commanders who were unconvinced the threat had diminished enough to justify the new armor edict.

As more Leathernecks deployed to Afghanistan, with its high altitude battlefields and rural geography, the Corps quietly began letting grunts wear light-weight plate carriers instead of the bulky Modular Tactical Vest, exchanging protection for pounds as the strategic environment dictated.

Potentially an even more drastic change is a forthcoming move by the Corps to create a graduated system of personal protective equipment that will allow Marines in the field to quickly move between different body armor configurations.


Crye Gets into a ‘CAGE’ Fight

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009


Crye Precision has evidently revamped its “armor chassis” concept with the new CAGE (Crye Assault GEar) armor vest.

[Photo: Military Morons]

I’ve been a big fan of Crye’s innovation over the years (though I was a bit put off by their lack of public relations savvy at the SHOT Show) and always believed their original armor chassis was spot on in terms of how armor should be designed, but lacked a realistic ergonomics to make it appealing to the mainstream of operators.

Now they’ve clearly taken the best of the original chassis and made it a bit more user friendly with the new CAGE.

CAGE (Crye Assault GEar) Armor Chassis: Unlike any other armor vest, the CAGE Armor Chassis is the result of years of design and engineering. Made by an entirely new production process, the articulated Chassis provides the most comfortable and stable armor/load-carriage platform to date. The design provides passive cooling via large air channels that run under the armor. Designed for use with our armored BLAST Belt, the CAGE Armor Chassis is fully modular and highly adjustable. Designed to be worn snug to the body like sports equipment. Features include: dual emergency doff, accepts 6X6 side plates and shoulder strap plates, front opening access, uninterrupted side coverage (no side seam), meets or exceeds IBA & USASOC frag and handgun requirements.

It’s my pet peeve that conventional armor makers design these lumbering boxes of Kevlar and ceramic that feel like you’re wearing a barrel over your chest. Crye’s got it right with the “designed to be worn snug to the body like sports equipment” idea. Take a good look at the photo presentation on the armor. I’m sure we’ll see them entering new armor competitions pretty soon.

Here’s a good write up on it from Military Morons.

– Christian

New Armor Plates in the Works

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009


We posted a story this morning about a team of engineering students at my alma mater who are designing new body armor inserts.

According to the story in the Richmond (VA) Times Dispatch, the three students — one of whom is an Army National Guardsman — are testing new plates that can absorb up to 32 shots from armor piercing rounds. The University of Virginia students’ contention is that the new design will contain spall and reduce backface deformation.

But the students aren’t being specific…

For proprietary reasons, the students don’t want to get into the specifics of how the armor works, though the invention in part is a new configuration of ceramic plates. The students also don’t want photographs taken of the armor.

O’Dell said the problem with current armor worn by Soldiers is that one shot from an armor-piercing bullet will create cracks in the ceramic material that makes up the vest. That leaves the Soldier vulnerable to the next shot.

The UVA.-designed vest should withstand possibly as many as 32 rounds of armor-piercing bullets per plate, said O’Dell, who at 29 is much older than his teammates. Armor vests usually have four plates — one each for the front, back and sides.

“We’re trying to contain those cracks,” O’Dell said.

The new armor also will “deflect” less when struck by the steel-core bullets used to penetrate armor. That’s important because too much deflection — where the ceramic material is actually deformed inward by the force of the bullet — can also kill a Soldier.

From what I can tell this isn’t much of a breakthrough. Seems the students are still using ceramic in their armor material. They claim they’re building a lighter plate that contains spall and reduces backface deformation. Sounds to me like a thinner ceramic core wrapped around a ton of Spectra or Dyneema. This is far from Earth shattering and there are armor manufacturers out there that are doing the same thing. Dyneema and Spectra have a hard time stopping the AP rounds, though, so maybe they have a new “configuration” that reduces the weight of the ceramic (which means they cut down on the amount) but preserves the kind of strength needed to stop AP rounds.

Until inventors start being able to forge armor from new materials, I don’t see much promise in increased ballistic resistance with reduced weight. Carbon nano-tubes anyone?

– Christian