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The future of body armor

Of course, we’d all like to believe that Batman’s light, flexible, bulletproof bodysuit is the wave of the future for military body armor. In fact, earlier this year the DoD released a Tech Report on reducing the weight of body armor for the military.1 This extensive study was a response to Congress’s question of how body armor weight can be reduced because of the possible disadvantages (injury, pain, fatigue, etc.) associated with service men and women carrying excessive amounts during deployments. In some cases, loads are more than double the recommended 50 lb limit. Because of these challenges, a new body armor design for women is being considered, in addition to other changes.2

The number one concern when developing body armor is the safety of the Warfighter. For this reason, body armor has two basic requirements: The ceramic plates cannot be penetrated when struck by multiple ballistic rounds in a well-defined shot pattern, and the backface deformation (indentation) that occurs when the bullet impacts the ceramic plate must be no greater than 44mm deep. Two major conclusions from the report are:

  1. The weight of body armor would have to be reduced by at least 10% for a wearer to notice and experience a significant difference. Currently, the technology just doesn’t exist to produce a “silver bullet” material that can reduce body armor weight enough without compromising Warfighter safety. While current armor is heavy, it does provide effective protection.
  2. Modular body armor could significantly reduce weight by allowing Warfighters to “customize” their armor for various threat environments. However, there are major practical issues such as having to stock large numbers of modular parts to both fit individual Warfighter physiques and provide appropriate levels of protection for the various threat levels. In addition, assessing threat so that body armor can be reduced in coverage or resistance when threat is low has its own challenges.

More research is needed into all the issues associated with body armor because of the large numbers of Warfighters being sent home from non-combat orthopedic injuries. In addition, there is indication that reducing the weight of body armor may increase the risk of injury or death because it would relieve soldier and unit performance degradation. In the meantime, the military is taking a more preventative approach to body armor and injury.