FORT BELVOIR, Va. – The Army has completed a major overhaul of its body armor, helmet and protective gear in recent years and will field the first batches of that gear beginning with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division this month.
Brig. Gen. Anthony Potts, Col. Stephen Thomas and Lt. Col. Ginger Whitehead shared details of the fielding this month and more testing and development on an even more advanced helmet and lighter body armor system coming later this year.
They spoke during a March 4 ceremony that centered around the return of a damaged Enhanced Combat Helmet to a soldier who survived a direct hit from a 7.62mm round to the back of the head with minimal injuries, thanks to the helmet.
Thomas, the program manager for Soldier Protective and Individual Equipment, told reporters that the Integrated Head Protection System, Improved Outer Tactical Vest Generation IV and Ballistic Pelvic Protection will all be fielded to the 3rd BCT this month. Later this summer, the Ballistic Combat Shirt will be delivered.
A separate report said soldiers will also get new eye protection that includes transitioning lenses for both day and low-light use.
Potts, commander of Program Executive Office Soldier, said the kit, all part of the overall Soldier Protection System, advances ballistic protection by adding mobility to the gear, providing layers of protection for a variety of threat environments and lightening the load by allowing soldiers to refit the gear to the mission.
By powering all devices and using one processor, Army officials think the move could streamline and lighten kit for the individual soldier.
The biggest change soldiers will see is the IHPS, which now allows users to add a visor, mandible and an extra “applique” layer for more head protection.
Whitehead, product manager for the system, said the new helmet offers soldiers “100 percent” more “blunt impact protection” over the ECH and has four holes as compared to five in the shell that its predecessor needs.
Fewer holes means better overall protection.
The holes were placed two on each side for attaching the retention device, or head and chin strap. Whitehead said the new helmet uses a boltless system.
The last remaining hole is for the night vision or optic mounting at the front of the helmet.
But, Potts said, some in-house work is close to removing that final hole, as well.
They’ve developed and are testing a Universal Helmet Mount. The UHM will allow any device to be mounted to the helmet without having to be bolted into the shell.
That’s because each device and each helmet, from the current IHPS to still-in-service ECH and Advanced Combat Helmets, all have different thicknesses and require different types of mounts.
And mounts are not cheap. Potts estimated that the Army spent nearly $40 million on helmet mounts alone in one year.
The new mounts should cost about 25 percent of the current mount cost, he said.
While body armor and helmets are a major gear focus, Potts described how little items such as the helmet mount feed into a larger “family of capabilities” that PEO Soldier is trying to deliver.
The mount will soon hold the Enhanced Night Vision Goggles-Binocular, the Army’s newest device that will also connect to a soldier’s weapon using the Family of Weapon Sights-Individual and Rapid Target Acquisition capability.
That means a soldier can use the combined hardware and software to see at night, through fog and smoke, use thermal vision and see their target through their weapons site pointing around a corner.
It’s a blending of augmented reality into night vision capability. And, soldiers will get an added layer of data with an almost miniaturized Blue Force Tracker that feeds into the device so they know the status and location of their fellow soldiers, he said.
And powering it all is Adaptive Soldier Architecture, which is a project to find ways to reduce the battery load and increase the processor power to run all of these systems on an individual soldier’s body without increasing their load, Potts said.
The mount means a hole-less helmet. But advances in materials research and manufacturing methods have led PEO Soldier to a helmet they’re currently calling the Next Generation IHPS, which they expect to send to a full company by later this year to test and evaluate.
That helmet will offer the same protection of the existing IHPS with its applique, but without the applique and at a lighter weight.
The applique adds that protective layer, but at a cost of an additional 2.5 pounds on the soldiers’ head.
Other items are lightening as well.
Materials are now being tested for the Enhanced Small Arms Protective Insert, basically the plates soldiers put in their carriers to stop bullets, are showing higher levels of protection at 20 percent less weight.
The newest MSV with its highest level of protection weighs about 20 pounds. Which means that if the advances are successful, the next wave of body armor could offer better protection than gear being fielded now, and weigh an estimated 16 pounds or less.
Some of those advances are being made through materials, and others are from engineering and design work, and they’ll make soldiers more mobile, Potts said.
The advances are a bit technical and known as Back Plate Deformation measures. That’s a measure of how much the body armor will give without causing injury. A certain level of give might cause a bruise but won’t penetrate and cause significant injury.
That means a tradeoff.
More deformation means a lighter plate. But there are limits. Potts said that balance is to keep soldiers protected but at the same time lighten their load.
The goal is to have an entire brigade combat team’s worth of the next-generation helmet and improved body armor fielded by late 2020 or early 2021 with the new plates and new helmet, Thomas said.