The Quest for Invincibility: US Army New Lightweight Armor and Helmets

 
U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. William F. Thetford, U.S. Central Command senior enlisted leader, presents coins to U.S. Army Soldiers during a training exercise in Iraq, Jan. 18, 2019. ( U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Franklin Moore)
U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. William F. Thetford, U.S. Central Command senior enlisted leader, presents coins to U.S. Army Soldiers during a training exercise in Iraq, Jan. 18, 2019. ( U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Franklin Moore)
 
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McQueen was in Afghanistan in September 2018 when two gunmen fired at him and his comrades from around 20 feet away. 

With the latest revelation from officials of the US Army in March 2019, US soldiers could well be on their way towards invincibility. A new set of body armor and new helmets have been finally completed after years of development.

The new body armor is not only lighter than its predecessor but also provides better protection and allows better mobility for ground troops. The new helmet, besides being lighter, is also designed to provide double the protection of its predecessor against blunt force trauma.

This new Soldier Protection System (SPS), in short, will give soldiers the ability to take a serious beating, and walk out alive.

According to the manufacturers and Army officials, the newly completed SPS—which comprises the Integrated Head Protection System, Modular Scalable Vest, and Blast Pelvic Protector—is a critical upgrade from previous systems.

Upon release in March 2019, the first SPS units will be delivered to Fort Bragg in North Carolina, to be first used by the Army’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division.

U.S. Soldiers assigned to the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, participate in exercise Bronco Rumble at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.
U.S. Soldiers assigned to the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, participate in exercise Bronco Rumble at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.

The revelation was made by Army officials on March 11 during an event at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The event was a ceremony reuniting Staff Sergeant Steven McQueen with his battered helmet.

McQueen was in Afghanistan in September 2018 when two gunmen fired at him and his comrades from around 20 feet away. McQueen took a head shot from a machine gun, but quickly sprang to his feet and ran for cover.

The 3.3-lb helmet he had worn that day was presented in the ceremony with a large hole on it. The life-saving helmet was one of the Enhanced Combat Helmets (ECH) which is currently in use by soldiers of the US Army. McQueen revealed that prior to that event, he had felt that the helmet was too heavy and that its design was overkill.

U.S. Marine wearing an ECH in 2018
U.S. Marine wearing an ECH in 2018

Even so, the ECH has proven itself quite effective—but with the release of the Integrated Head Protection System (IHPS), developed by Ceradyne Inc., the Army is set to go a step higher. The newly finished, slightly larger IHPS has the same level of ballistic protection against rifles as the ECH, but offers 100% improvement in protection against trauma to a soldier’s head.

According to Alex DeGroot, Ceradyne’s lead engineer for head protection, with its improved protection and lesser weight the IHPS represents less force on the brain, and this is “one of the things that make the helmet considerably better than the current helmet.”

The IHPS also features a boltless retention system which allows the four bolt holes that used to hold the chin straps to be eliminated. According to Lieutenant Colonel Ginger Whitehead, the product manager for Soldier Protection Equipment, drilling holes on helmets has a downside: it weakens the material. The chin straps are attached to the sides of the helmets now, without bolts.

U.S. Army and Polish special operations forces conduct close-quarters combat training.
U.S. Army and Polish special operations forces conduct close-quarters combat training.

On each side of the IHPS, there are removable rails which would allow soldiers to mount lights and other necessary accessories on the helmet, especially when working under low-light conditions.

In a statement by DeGroot, the new helmet, with its slightly larger area, provides more space on both sides for soldiers to put on headsets more comfortably. The IHPS also comes with optional protective add-ons like a visor, a mandible guard for the lower jaw, and a “ballistic appliqué.”

The new body armor, the Modular Scalable Vest (MSV), weighs around 11 pounds without ballistic plates, and 25 pounds when fitted with front and side armor plates. Overall, it is lighter by five pounds than the Improved Outer Tactical Vest which is currently in use in the Army.

1st Lt. Dawn Ward, a platoon leader with 663rd Ordnance Company and evaluation officer in charge, participates in the final round of field-testing for the Modular Scalable Vest (MSV) during a weeklong series of evaluated tasks at Fort Carson, Colo., Oct. 18, 2017.Photo: Staff Sgt. Lance Pounds
1st Lt. Dawn Ward, a platoon leader with 663rd Ordnance Company and evaluation officer in charge, participates in the final round of field-testing for the Modular Scalable Vest (MSV) during a weeklong series of evaluated tasks at Fort Carson, Colo., Oct. 18, 2017.Photo: Staff Sgt. Lance Pounds

Another item in the SPS, the Blast Pelvic Protector, reportedly provides extra protection for the groin and upper thighs.

In a report released on Military.com, the SPS was said to also feature a Ballistic Combat Shirt (BCS) which has soft armor on the high back, high chest, shoulders, and neck to help protect against 9mm rounds and shrapnel.

The BCS is to replace the Deltoid Axillary Protector, which was originally developed in the early days of the Iraq War to shield US soldiers’ shoulders and upper arms from shrapnel wounds caused by Improvised Explosive Devices.

U.S. Marines from 3rd Battalion 3rd Marines clear a house in Al Anbar Governorate, during the Iraq War
U.S. Marines from 3rd Battalion 3rd Marines clear a house in Al Anbar Governorate, during the Iraq War

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Because the Army has not yet been provided with all the sizes required for full fielding, the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division will receive the IHPS and MSV but will not sport the BCS this month. However, according to Whitehead, there are plans in place to field the BCS this summer.

Perhaps it is impossible to achieve the perfect protection system. But with the constant improvements on existing models, and the desire to go even further, the United States military looks poised to take a shot at achieving invincibility, even if that is only slightly possible.

 
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