US Army and Navy have multiple projects to reduce body armor weight by 20-50% while maintaining or improving protection

The Army has been working to develop the next-generation “soldier protection system,” which would equip troops with lighter body armor, along with upgraded equipment including health sensors and new protective eyewear.

“The most immediate need for body armor right now is weight reduction,” said Lt. Col. Kathy Brown, product manager for soldier protective equipment for the Army program executive office soldier. “There is a big emphasis on trying to lighten the soldiers’ load, and also to make sure that we have adequate protection and a great fit.”

Soldiers are currently carrying 100 pounds of armor, weapons, supplies and other gear.

The multimillion-dollar program includes the vital torso protection system (VTPS), which features lighter-weight protective inserts and side ballistic inserts. The VTPS achieves between seven and 14 percent reduced weight, Brown said. The manufacturers include BAE Systems and Ceradyne.

The torso and extremity protection portion includes a new soft armor modular scalable vest, improved outer tactical vests for both male and female soldiers, a blast pelvic protector and a ballistic combat shirt.

The new protection systems are achieving 5-14% weight reduction, better fit and more comfort. The programs goals are 20% weight reduction.

The soft armor vest, tactical vest, head protection system and ballistic combat eyewear projects are scheduled for full-rate production in fiscal year 2017, while the sensor system is expected to become a program of record in fiscal year 2018, Brown said.

“We’re covering more of the body now,” she said. “Before, you had the vest and the helmets, then you added the plates. Now, you’ve got the blast pelvic protector, groin protection, side protection and the neck.”

Honeywell produces Spectra shields made with its patented fiber technology, which can be up to 60 percent stronger than other body armor fibers, Wagner said. Spectra shields are used across the services in small arms protective inserts (SAPI), soft armor vests, helmets and shields, and the company is consistently working to make them lighter, she said.

“The Army just achieved a significant weight improvement where they got 15 percent [reduced weight] out of the vest components, and they just announced that they want another 20 percent reduction in weight,” she said. “It’s a constant far-reaching target for us, but over the years, we were able to show a marked improvement.”

Navy Research on Bouyant body armor with 50% weight reduction of insert

Engineers at the Naval Research Laboratory have developed a flexible, buoyant body armor prototype. The prototype can take multiple hits and was shown in testing to provide equivalent protection with a 50-percent weight reduction over existing small arms protective insert designs.

Benefits of the new flexible, lightweight bouyant body armor includes:

  • Buoyant design
  • Improved flexibility to enable seamless, wrap around body protection
  • Lighter than steel and monolithic ceramic plate designs
  • Improved survivability, capable of withstanding multiple shots
  • Lower propensity to being damaged during routine use
  • Lower sustainment costs, eliminates the need for periodic x-ray verification of cracks
  • Potentially less expensive than current SAPI/ESAPI armor plates, estimated cost is ~$170-$360/ft2

The plate is made out of layers of industrial ceramic spheres that are encapsulated within closed foam in the body plates so they are better able to withstand multiple hits, Winthrop said. The technology, first developed at the Naval Research Laboratory, allows the armor to be more flexible than normal SAPI plates and neutrally buoyant.

Initial testing for the flexible buoyant body armor has shown promise. The National Institute of Justice standard defines ballistic resistance of body armor, and a Level 4 — the highest rating — indicates that the armor can withstand an armor-piercing bullet shot up to 2,880 feet per second. Current SAPI plates have a Level 4 rating, and the new plates have been shown to withstand multiple armor-piercing shots up to 3,000 feet per second in testing, Winthrop said

Army Reserve Lt. Col. Kit Parker, a bioengineering professor at Harvard who has served multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan, is developing a next-generation nanofiber that can be used to design lighter-weight body armor.

Even further into the future, soldiers could be wearing customizable, tailor-made body armor, Wagner said. The military has discussed the idea of “complex suits of armor, where the soldier can determine what type of environment they will be in, and take the best components they need for that mission and still have a light, accessible armor system,” she said.

SOURCES- National Defense Magazine, Naval Research Laboratory, RRTO, Harvard, Army, Navy