The Army's new helmet will be capable of stopping penetration by enemy rifle rounds. (ARMY)
The Army intends to start issuing a new combat helmet made of a special plastic capable, for the first time, of stopping penetration by enemy rifle rounds.
Officials from Product Manager Soldier Protective Equipment plan to buy 200,000 Enhanced Combat Helmets that depend on "ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene" instead of ballistic fibers such as Kevlar and Twaron used in the current Army Combat Helmet. Developmental testing on prototypes from four companies is scheduled to begin next month, and Army officials hope to start fielding by mid-2010, said Lt. Col. Jon Rickey, the head of PM Soldier Protective Equipment. These advanced thermoplastic materials offer "a degree of ballistic protection that is greatly improved over the ACH," Rickey said.
Congress has appropriated $10.6 million for the Army's ECH program, $4 million in fiscal 2008 and $6.6 million in fiscal 2009, Rickey said.
The Marine Corps-led ECH effort began in 2007 when the industry presented samples of the highly durable, lightweight ballistic materials.
"Industry approached [both services] with these different materials," said Rickey, describing how the Army has worked closely with the Marines on the program. "We did believe we had a technological opportunity really for a next generation of materials inside the helmet."
Lt. Col. A.J. Pasagian, head of the Corps' infantry combat equipment program at Marine Corps Systems Command, compared the new helmet's potential to that of the revolutionary Gatling gun introduced in the 1860s.
"We're taking a giant leap," Pasagian said. "We found out there's a lot of viability and a lot of promise and potential in this type of material, so we seized on it."
The decision means that for the first time in nearly three decades, soldiers and Marines will not wear helmets made of ballistic fibers such as Dupont's Kevlar. The new plastic, used commercially in everything from artificial hip replacements to police body armor, offers more protection from fragmentation in explosions and the ability to stop some small arms, Pasagian said.
Pasagian outlined the material's benefits Aug. 5 at the 2009 Marine Gunner Symposium in Reston, Va., telling the Corps' infantry weapons experts that the effort to build the next combat helmet has been fast-tracked by Commandant Gen. James Conway.
"He said, ‘I've got to have something right now. Go!'" Pasagian said. The program, based at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., in July awarded contracts worth a total of about $5.5 million to four companies for developmental test quantities of helmets. The companies are Mine Safety Appliances Co. of Pittsburgh, Pa.; BAE Systems Aerospace & Defense Group Inc. of Rockville, Md.; Gentex Corp. of Carbondale, Pa.; and Ceradyne Inc. of Costa Mesa, Calif.
Ceradyne officials said their contract allows the government to purchase 310 to 246,840 helmets over the next two years, depending on how their product fares in testing. Specific contract details for the other companies were not immediately available.
Secret stopping power
It's unclear what kind of rifle round the new helmets will stop. For nearly two years, though, finding a new helmet that can stop a 7.62mm round — the caliber of ammunition used in the AK47 assault rifle favored by combatants in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere — has been a top priority, Conway has said. program officials continue to remain quiet on specifics, citing operational security.
However, the new helmet must offer at least 35 percent more protection against fragmentation and handgun and small-arms fire, Marine officials said. That would be a significant upgrade over the existing Advanced Combat Helmet adopted by the Army in 2002 and the Lightweight Helmet fielded by the Corps about a year later. Both of those helmets are designed to protect against fragmentation and handgun ammunition.
Army officials would not discuss specific ammunition the new ECH will stop, but confirmed it will stop penetration by at least some rifle rounds.
"We would like to achieve 7.62mm," Rickey said, but cautioned that that covers a wide range of rounds and that maximum protection levels will be finalized during testing.
Army officials acknowledged that wearing a helmet capable of preventing penetration by rifle rounds could save lives, but would also mean increased risk of head and neck trauma because of the force of a bullet hitting the headgear.
"Our immediate goal is to save soldiers' lives, and our next step is to prevent" injuries such as traumatic brain injury, Rickey said.
The ECH will look very much like the ACH but will be "a little bit thicker," Rickey said.
The ACH design is "combat tested and proven; it does work," he said. "You have to be really good to tell the difference between the ACH and the ECH."
Marine program officials intend also to review options for the future helmet's suspension system but cannot afford to wait on the shell, Pasagian said.
The Army plans to use the current pad system, since it is "the best available," said Army program engineer Michael Van Buskirk, who added that the service is constantly looking for improvements to the pad system.
The Army's initial requirement for combat brigades is 200,000 ECHs, but ultimately the service wants to issue one to every soldier, said Maj. Christopher Metz, assistant product manager for Head Protection.
"We have been in this war for eight years; we know soldiers are dying," Metz said. "Our job is to make the best product available to protect that soldier's life and get them back home to their family."