What Body Armor Does the Military Use?
For one reason or another, human beings have been battling each other since the Stone Age. In military warfare, just as important as tactics and weapons is the use of body armor.
So here at Bulletproof Zone, we’ve got that very subject in our sights – from nutshelling modern U.S. military armor to taking a stab at the future of protective wear for the armed forces.
But to better understand military body armor, we first need to take you right back to when it all began...
A BRIEF HISTORY OF MILITARY BODY ARMOR
It was the Bronze Age when metal armor was first forged. The Assyrians built the first ever permanent army, and mastered making weaponry and scale armor from iron. With it, they went on to crush Sumerian city-states and rule over a vast empire for some 2 centuries.
LATE MIDDLE AGES - THE ARMS RACE BEGINS
Since the swords and spears of Mesopotamian times, of course, weapons have gotten a tad more powerful.
To say nothing of a more cunning enemy. The turning point came around 1400 A.D. with the arrival of 'true' firearms, especially ranged weapons.
The metal armor of the day just couldn’t offer the required protection so for the next 400 years fell out of widespread use.
AMERICAN CIVIL WAR - THE BODY ARMOR RENAISSANCE
For some time after its founding in 1775, the U.S. military had next-to-no faith in the use of body armor.
Even during the Civil War of the 1860s, army soldiers had to pick up such gear from peddlers who traveled around army camps and recruiting posts.
Of the dozens of styles up for grabs, the most popular was the ‘Soldier’s Bullet Proof Vest’ – a regular military vest sporting front and back pockets into which were tucked cast iron plates.
So hefty were they and reckoned by many to be unmanly that most were ditched by the wayside en route to the battlefield.
WORLD WAR II - THE FLAK JACKET IS BORN
The limited use of ‘battle rattle’ continued throughout WWI. But that all changed during the Second World War with the development of the Flak Jacket.
With the clue in the name, the job of the ballistic nylon-made ‘Flyer’s Vest’ was simply to protect the wearer against anti-aircraft fire.
And, together with the M1 steel helmet, saved the lives of countless air force pilots and artillerymen. Flak jackets were remodeled several times over the years; Doron fiberglass body armor plates were added later, and used to great effect in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
SWINGING SIXTIES - THE MATERIALS REVOLUTION
It was the ‘60s, though, that saw materials pop up on the radar that have since transformed military protective gear the world over.
In 1963, the accidental discovery of Ultra-High Molecular Weight PolyEthylene [UHMWPE] at DSM.
In 1965, aluminum oxide ceramic plates made their operational debut to U.S. heli crews in the Vietnam War.
In the same year, Kevlar was identified purely by chance.
Fired up by DuPont’s new claim to fame, the U.S. Armed Forces set about fashioning a new body armor system for the present day.
THE EVOLUTION OF MODERN UNITED STATES MILITARY BODY ARMOR
Except for the United States Space Force [USSF], the American military are made up of a handful of branches:
United States Army [USA]
United States Navy [USN]
United States Air Force [USAF]
United States Marine Corps [USMC]
United States Coast Guard [USCG]
While their ultimate mission is defense of the homeland and its interests, each carry out their own ops in varying scenarios domestically and overseas.
As it happens, there’s well over a dozen body armor systems that have been adopted by the U.S. Armed Forces in the last half century.
Here, we’re targeting the major ones:
PERSONNEL ARMOR SYSTEM FOR GROUND TROOPS [PASGT]
Introduced in 1983 as the main body armor for the army, marines and air force, the PASGT replaced the flak jacket and M1 helmet.
Versus which, the PASGT ballistic vest and helmet were a much better fit. They also improved the protection from shell fragments and added resistance from side arms.
Both the PASGT body armor vests and helmets were armored entirely from Kevlar (ballistic grade K-29) - a first for American military body armor.
The system is still used by army reservists and the trademark PASGT helmet by navy sailors.
Before the last PASGT was turned in, though, there was a serious need to protect wearers from rifle rounds. So a stop-gap body armor solution had to be created.
INTERIM SMALL ARMS PROTECTIVE OVERVEST [ISAPO]
Brought in from early 1996 and worn over the PASGT vest, the ISAPO plate carrier contained front and back pockets into which boron carbide hard armor was inserted – the first time ceramic plates were given to U.S. ground troops.
While they could protect against 7.62mm ball ammo fired from high-powered rifles, the PASGT vest/ISAPO combo weighed in at 21-25lbs so was widely criticized by U.S. troops. Only a few thousand ISAPOs were fielded and it was retired, along with the PASGT, in early 2003.
INTERCEPTOR BODY ARMOR [IBA]
Starting from scratch, the IBA was developed jointly by the army and marine corps as the next in line after the PASGT (and ISAPO).
Though the Interceptor Armor roll out kicked off in the summer of 1999, pretty few were fielded before 9/11. After which, it was standard issue for soldiers and marines before being adopted by the air force and navy.
The IBA core setup consisted of:
Outer Tactical Vest [OTV] - included a trio of soft armor inserts packed with layered Kevlar KM2 - good enough to withstand shrapnel and several strikes from slugs up to 9mm.
Small Arms Protective Insert [SAPI] hard armor plates – their first appearance in U.S. Armed Forces body armor. When loaded, front and back, into the OTV and used In Conjunction With [ICW] the vest’s soft armor, the boron carbide ceramic plates could take multiple hits from high-velocity 7.62mm caliber bullets.
The Interceptor Body Armor was also engineered to be modular. First, by making its own armor panels removable; and second, by allowing soft armored add-ons (like protectors for the neck, throat, and groin).
Between 2004 and 2006, to beef up ballistic protection and extend the protective coverage, even more accessories were made available for the IBA:
Deltoid and Axillary Protector [DAP] – a set of 2 pads which provided fragmentation and projectile protection to the upper arms/shoulders and underarm.
Enhanced Small Arms Protective Inserts [ESAPIs] – used instead of SAPI plates to stop .30 caliber armor-piercing ammunition.
Enhanced Side Ballistic Inserts [ESBIs] – to protect the previously vulnerable lateral torso.
Back extender upper legs protector.
The original Interceptor system with full body armor came in lighter than the PASGT/ISAPO combined. Whereas with all the extras, the weight was pushed to a whopping 33.1lbs.
Given military personnel also have to burden plenty other tools and supplies in their load-out, it was one of the reasons why critics took aim at the IBA; not to mention, gripes about it being stifling to wear and the bulkiness restricting mobility.
On the other hand, supporters raved that the vest worked with the then recently introduced MOLLE (for attaching pistol holsters, mag pouches, grenades, and other gear); plus, it incorporated a large drag handle to let a comrade haul a wounded wearer to safety; and, to be fair, did save many an American life during the War On Terror campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Interceptor Armor prevailed throughout the 2000s, and limited numbers are still in use today by some units in the Army National Guard and Army Reserve.
IMPROVED OUTER TACTICAL VEST [IOTV]
The IOTV was phased in during the second quarter 2007 to army soldiers and quite recently to the United States Air Force Special Forces [USAFSF].
It's an upgraded version of, and substitute for, the IBA OTV.
In response to feedback from boots on the ground, the IOTV has an edge over its predecessor in several respects:
• Rigged with Kevlar KM2 and boron carbide ceramic, the IOTV provides similar frag and bullet resistance to the OTV.
• A throat protector and side plates pockets are now integrated into the vest, and a lower back protector grows the protective coverage by more than 50 square inches.
• The IOTV uses identical SAPI/ESAPI plates as the OTV, but the SAPI/ESAPI plate pockets can be shifted up or down to better position the hard armor.
• A fully armored IOTV is even heavier (at 35lbs) than the equivalent IBA - except the vests take a lot of the weight on the hips instead of bearing it all on the shoulders.
• For hot weather/climates, the IOTV’s lined with a breathable mesh fabric to reduce heat stress.
• Same goes for the Army Combat Shirt [ACS] which is normally worn underneath the body armor vests, and is also flame resistant.
• A simple tug of a lanyard dismantles the vest in an instant - invaluable as a means of escape if the wearer’s caught inside a blazing vehicle or building, falls into water, or else needs to be examined by a medic following an injury.
• The F-IOTV sits higher on the waist, has an adjustable corset, plus accepts tinier, curvier hard ballistic plates.
SOLDIER PROTECTION SYSTEM [SPS]
The SPS program was actually unveiled a decade ago with the objective to enhance soldier mobility and lethality.
To pull this off meant creating a lighter weight body armor offering the same or better protection than existing U.S. Army body armor systems.
The SPS is a suite of four subsystems:
INTEGRATED HEAD PROTECTION SYSTEM [IHPS]
The IHPS is expected to succeed both the Advanced Combat Helmet [ACH] and the Enhanced Combat Helmet [ECH].
As well as passive hearing protection, additional features of the IHPS include side rails plus Picatinny adaptor for mounting a head cam, night vision goggles, and comms, for example.
The base helmet is armored with UHMWPE, and protection against blunt force hits has been jacked up. To boost head protection, the turret form of the IHPS can be achieved by connecting to:
A ballistic visor.
A ballistic mandible (lower jaw) guard.
An applique (cover) which attaches to the top of the helmet shell and shields against sniper fire.
And for the ladies, the added option of a modified retention system to better suit female hairstyles.
MILITARY EYE COMBAT PROTECTION [MECP]
MECP is a pick of ballistic eye wear which has been officially approved for use by military personnel.
TORSO AND EXTREMITY PROTECTION [TEP]
Each of the TEP components holds soft armor made up of Twaron, plus Dyneema and Spectra - to protect the wearer against handgun rounds up to 9mm as well as blast fragments.
MODULAR SCALABLE VEST [MSV]
Down to succeed the IOTV, the Modular Scalable Vest was introduced in the summer of 2018.
Compared to the first generation IOTV, a fully loaded MSV (in medium size) is a whole 26% lighter.
Based on early reactions, the Modular Scalable Vest also provides a much greater range of movement, is cooler on the body, and has expanded alpha sizing to accommodate female and smaller framed men-at-arms.
Neatly, the MSV is customizable and can be scaled up or down depending on the threat and the nature of the mission:
TIER 1 – CONCEALABLE
Soft armor panels
TIER 2 - LOW VISIBILITY
As Tier 1, but adds Small Arms Protective Insert [SAPI] ballistic plates.
TIER 3 - TACTICAL
Soft armor panels
Enhanced Side Ballistic Insert [ESBI] hard plates
TIER 4 - FULL SPECTRUM
Per Tier 3, but adds the Ballistic Combat Shirt.
BALLISTIC COMBAT SHIRT [BCS]
The BCS was designed as a replacement for the ACS, and is supposed to be worn under the Modular Scalable Vest.
The blouse is also gender specific with a version specially for servicewomen.
Besides the soft armor materials, the BCS features moisture-wicking and flame resistant fabric.
Unlike the DAP for the IOTV, ballistic protection for the deltoid and upper thoracic parts of the body are built in. And the same goes for the neck, shoulders, upper back, upper chest, and arms.
BLAST PELVIC PROTECTOR [BPP]
BPP is a one-piece accessory that goes on over Army Combat Uniform [ACU] trousers to extend protection to the thigh and groin area.
BALLISTIC BATTLE BELT [B3]
B3 is essentially a stand-alone Weight Distribution System [WDS] to shift the load burden from the shoulders to the hips.
VITAL TORSO PROTECTION [VTP]
VTP is the hard armor element of the SPS, and comes as its own shooters cut ceramic plates:
ESAPI/X-Threat Small Arms Protective Inserts [XSAPI] to protect the front and back of the torso
ESBI/X-Threat Side Ballistic Inserts [XSBI] to protect the sides of the body
When slipped into the MSV’s plate pockets and used ICW its soft armor, ballistic threats up to 7.62mm caliber rifle rounds can be defeated. What’s more, several of the plate sizes have been designed especially for females and smaller bodied servicemen.
So far, various SPS subsystems have undergone field testing on home soil as well as downrange.
Since 2017, the MSV and VTP have been supplied to select army brigades and air force squadrons. And from 2019, the IHPS has been issued to certain front-line combat units in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.
THE FUTURE OF MILITARY BODY ARMOR
The SPS may be the most groundbreaking protective wear for U.S. Armed Forces out there, but it isn’t the end of the road for military body armor. For as long as new threats emerge and weapons become more destructive, the pursuit of lighter and tougher body armor will go on.
Luckily, our administration continues to pour hundreds of millions into R&D on body armor for the army, navy, air force, and marine corps. So the best and brightest can keep drawing on advances in materials science and the most recent tech to cook up the next wave of military body armor.
IMPROVING EXISTING BODY ARMOR MATERIALS
Though Kevlar’s long been the mainstay of military soft armor, the new rock star of ballistic fibers is Ultra-High Molecular Weight Polyethylene.
Hottest off the press in terms of refining the substance, researchers in Brazil have blended UHMWPE with boron carbide nanoparticles. Resulting in a potential ballistic performance increase of more than 300%.
Despite originating with the Mongol hordes and the U.S. military first toying with the idea back in the late 19th century, interest in silk armor has seen a revival of late.
Already, the DNA of farmed silkworms has been genetically tweaked to whip up artificial silk that’s at least as mighty and as stretchy as that from spiders.
The creators, Kraig Biocraft, since dispatched their Dragon Silk ballistic shootpack panels for the U.S. Army to check out.
Barring Dragon Skin, ceramic has been the go-to hard armor for American Armed Forces during the past two and a bit decades.
With the end-game of hiking multi-hit resistance, perhaps the most promising direction is ceramic composites.
Specialists at U.N.T., sponsored by the Army Research Lab [ARL], are experimenting with this as we write.
EXPLORING NEW POSSIBILITIES FOR BODY ARMOR
Some materials for military body armor come and go (think Zylon). But we never know if something new might turn out to be earth-shattering.
Like graphene. Technically put, it’s a honeycomb-patterned sheet of bonded carbon atoms with a thickness of just one atom.
Alone, the uber lightweight compound wouldn’t hold up to being hammered by bullets. But experts at C.U.N.Y. figured out that by double layering the graphene (AKA diamene), it switches from flexible to harder than diamond when pressure’s applied.
The same principle, in fact, as liquid armor. It works by taking regular soft armor and soaking it in either of Non-Newtonian Shear Thickening Fluid or Magnetorheological Fluid to reinforce it.
Once struck by a fast-moving projectile, the STF/MF in the armor solidifies in a matter of milliseconds. Something that the ARL has been grinding away at for the last decade as part of the ‘Soldier 2025’ project.
Then there’s Composite Metal Foam. The masterminds over at Advanced Materials Manufacturing have already built armor embedded with CMF.
This stuff doesn’t just stop a .50 caliber armor-piercing bullet upon contact, it literally pulverizes it. It’s as effective as steel, but weighs infinitely less.
Just as exciting are potential body armor structures inspired by mother nature herself. At the minute, the big brains at the Naval Surface Warfare Center [NSWC] have knocked up a bulletproof slime based on the mucus that the sea-going hagfish secretes as a defense against predators.
Even more mind-blowing, how about armor that repairs itself after being shot. Based on how some animal species can sprout new tissues and organs in response to bodily trauma, the folks at the ARL are delving into thermoplastics that regenerate as a means of self-healing armor.
We’ve come a long way since early man first armored up in animal skin and bones.
Already, next-gen materials have started featuring in some types of body armor. But military authorities keep tooling away in the quest for protective wear that best balances protection and mobility.
By doing so, helping to keep more of tomorrow’s armed forces personnel out of harm’s way so, mission accomplished, they can return home safely to their loved ones.
But don’t go AWOL just yet. As a former or still serving member of the armed forces, we’d absolutely love to hear about your own experiences using military body armor – fire away in the comments section below!
Until our next content tour, Bulletproof Zone over.