(Jan 2015) - Today's soldiers face greater threats on the battlefield than any army before them. As the U.S. Army's modern enemies – terrorists and insurgents – arm themselves with military-grade weaponry, troops now need to ensure they carry the best equipment available to stay as safe as possible. The brave men and women serving in the world's worst war-zones (Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq) encounter multiple risks whenever they enter hostile territory – assault rifles, grenades, mines, bombs – and while they may be armed with the best weaponry available to them, the protective clothing they wear must evolve to meet changing demands.
Ballistic protection is essential to modern soldiers on the front line: a single bullet striking a vital organ or causing enough blood-loss could prove fatal, and vests now need to be able to protect against various ammunition types. Military ballistic protection has changed dramatically in the past several decades, and as conflicts continue to escalate around the world, the military will continue to experiment with various new innovations to keep their men and women as safe as possible in the most volatile environments.
This article explores the past of military ballistic protection, and discusses its future, with an insight into the most cutting-edge armors currently in development.
The Evolution of Ballistic Armor: A Brief History
While soldiers serving in WW1 had access to some ballistic armor, this was incredibly limited, and not every infantryman was lucky enough to experience its potential benefits. Back then, armors was a little more cumbersome: Germany outfitted soldiers with nickel and silicon plates, the French tried abdominal armor, and the United States military developed different types of armor, such as the Brewster Body Shield – a breastplate and headpiece designed to resist gunfire. However, all of these were deemed cumbersome and too heavy, making movement too difficult for the average soldier.
In the Second World War, ballistic armor saw a significant improvement, with some vests designed to carry manganese steel plates, which covered the front and back, much as today's vests do – these offered decent protection to the vital organs, and were also lightweight enough to still be somewhat practical. The United States again created ballistic armor for their infantrymen, but these vests were judged too heavy, and encumbered wearers' movements too much to be suitable for combat; later innovations included designs featuring fiberglass-based plates.
Ballistic Armor Today
Since then, in recent decades, the United States military has continued to enhance their soldiers' ballistic armor, with vests becoming more and more lightweight yet still more protective. Since Stephanie Kwolek – a research chemist – paved the way for the creation of Kevlar (a synthetic fiber with five times the resilience of steel) in 1965, ballistic armor has gone from strength to strength: incorporating Kevlar and plates (either steel or ceramics, depending on the level of protection needed), vests now provide soldiers with adequate coverage of the vital organs in some of today's most dangerous, terrifying locations. As enemies continue to carry heavy-duty weaponry, firing high-velocity ammunition, soldiers' ballistic armor must defend against these in a practical way, allowing for easy movement and maneuvering.
The U.S. Military has issued various forms of ballistic armor, but most ground troops now use the Modular Tactical Vest (MTV), which is an evolution of the previously-used Interceptor armor, allowing for fast, easy wear and removal – this ensures any injuries can be treated with greater ease than the former allowed for (previous vests often had to be cut from the body to access areas demanding treatment). Soldiers operating in the mountainous environment of Afghanistan needed a slightly different form of armor, and so their MTV's were replaced with the Scalable Plate Carrier, a more lightweight alternative designed to compensate for the extra exertion these soldiers would experience.
The MTV vests feature the same PALS (Pouch Attachment Ladder System) as the Interceptor ballistic protection, which is a webbing grid allowing equipment to be attached to the vest in a quick, reliable manner – knife sheathes, radio pouches, holsters, and more can all be carried using this system. This reduces the need for all items to be carried in backpacks, and allows for easier access.
In terms of protection, Kevlar is used in the vest itself, while additional plates – when inserted – can stop armor-piercing rounds, some body armor manufacturers such as SafeGuardClothing, have combined the two protection types. Some military systems also provide protection to the groin and neck, and also feature integrated channels for wiring from communications equipment (previous armor lacked this, meaning radio tools and attached cabling was cumbersome).
The Future of Military Ballistic Armor
As weaponry is sure to advance in coming decades, both the U.S. Military and their enemies alike will pose greater and greater risk to each other: to help troops stay as safe as possible, the military continues to research and design cutting-edge approaches to armor. These are generally based around exosuits: a common sight in science-fiction films, novels, and video games, these incorporate robotics and high-tech imaging software to help soldiers remain protected against most threats, also equipping them to receive mission information and essential data direct to their HUDs (Heads Up Displays).
The TALOS is perhaps the most exciting and potentially game changing exosuit in development. With the help of labs, universities, and the technology industry, the U.S. Army is making fascinating progress on this, which will provide full-body ballistic protection and performance-enhancing capabilities; monitoring tech will also allow real-time tracking of vital signs.
Developers predict the finished TALOS will incorporate multiple advantageous features, including: sensor-cues for the reduction of injuries; energy reapplication for motion-boosts and metabolic assistance; smart weight-distribution throughout the body, allowing for greater comfort and agility when carrying equipment; the suit is also expected to stay flexible during use, but stiffening when necessary.
This suit would revolutionize the U.S. Army's performance in combat, as it provides the ballistic protection soldiers need, while allowing them to carry all essential equipment without inhibiting mobility – if this is completed to a field-ready state, this could be the ultimate form of military armor. Allowing soldiers to remain flexible at all times is obviously a key element all armors must offer, as troops operating in combat zones need to move as freely as possible: moving from cover to cover, firing accurately, and engaging in unarmed combat may all be necessary in operations, and if armor becomes more of a hindrance than a help, then it almost defeats its purpose.
However, one of the biggest challenges facing the implementation of TALOS is the power generation needed to run it – there is currently no lightweight system able to power it in the field as needed. Given the potential benefits and fatality-reducing advantages this offers, however, the U.S. Army has plenty of incentive to make this work.
Of course, as armor continues to become more and more resilient, flexible, and in-tune with its wearer, then there is genuine hope that field-combat fatalities will reduce. Given that all armor, across all ages, has been designed for this very purpose, perhaps the exosuit will become known as the closest to the perfect ballistic protection manufacturers have ever achieved.