Creating stronger, lighter, and more flexible body armor is the goal of almost every body armor manufacturer. From finding new materials to developing new methods of structuring vests, this is the driving force behind the body armor industry. This is of particular importance to the Military, who have not only unique requirements, but also a pressing need for protective clothing. Military body armor, for example, must be comfortable in all environments, while at the same time offering maximum protection.
The Armor Soldiers Need
Body armor uses lightweight yet strong materials that are capable of absorbing and dispelling the energy of a bullet. These materials, like Kevlar, usually come in fabric form, and have incredible strength-to-weight ratios while remaining flexible. They are only capable of protecting up to a certain point however, and for extreme threats ‘hard armor’ is needed. It is named this because of the rigid plates it uses, which are made of materials like Ceramic or Polyethylene. These are heavier and bulkier, but far stronger.
Servicemen and women require this hard armor for protection against the threats they are most likely to face. These threats include armor-piercing ammunition and explosives, and so rigid armor is a necessity. However, the extra weight and bulk makes armor far more uncomfortable, and so manufacturers are particularly interested in making lighter and thinner armor for the Military.
Most Military branches outsource the research and development of body armor to manufacturers, thereby reducing costs, and these lucrative contracts are often hotly contested. On the other hand, the US Navy conducts its own research and development. Their focus has been on creating lighter inserts for vests, as opposed to designing an entire vest from scratch. This helps save costs, but also allows for increased protection at the same weight.
Developments of Body Armor
Increasing the protection of armor is certainly an important area of focus for military armor, but it is important also to improve the comfort of a vest. One of the major threats facing the modern soldier is explosives, which require specific protection that can make a vest heavy and bulky. Unfortunately for most soldiers working in active warzones, this extra bulk and weight can dramatically reduce efficiency and drain energy. Making a thin vest is incredibly important for those working in the heat that most soldiers have to.
It is not simply the protective inserts that need to be thinner however, and manufacturers are increasingly looking to make the carriers for vests lighter and more breathable. Moreover, many are trying to create better-fitting armor, and are offering a wider array of sizes. Armor that does not fit properly is a serious problem, for many reasons; it can increase discomfort severely, to the point that people choose not to wear their vest, but it can also leave gaps in protection that can render the vest useless.
An important aspect of this is in creating new models and sizes for female soldiers, who until now have been forced to wear vests designed for men. Not only is this an insulting oversight, women have different body shapes and may not be protected properly when wearing body armor designed for men. By offering more options for women, it can help keep them far safer.
Different Approaches to Body Armor
While Military research into body armor emphasises creating lighter and thinner vests, so too do manufacturers and outside researchers look to create lighter and thinner armor, and all are increasingly taking advantage of new technologies to assist them. One interesting example is the development of scaled armor in the style of medieval chainmail and lobstered gauntlets. By utilizing 3D printing and other modern technologies, researchers can more easily scale models of natural armors, for example those found on lobsters.
On the other hand, the US Navy emphasises more practical solutions in order to save money, and have argued that research in the vein of that mentioned above is time-consuming and expensive. They instead recommend providing immediate improvements by improving preparation, and ensuring soldiers are wearing only armor that is appropriate for the threats they will face. This means that soldiers will be less often equipped with heavy and bulky armor; indeed, Government research reported that the majority of soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan were equipped with armor designed to protect against much stronger weaponry than they were actually facing.
On the other hand, it is the job of the soldier to be prepared for any eventuality, and too many military deaths occur from improper equipment. Wearing appropriate armor is important, but it is impossible for a soldier to know exactly what threats she or he will face. Therefore, creating more versatile armor will help keep these brave women and men safe. Researchers have already started to test new materials for ballistic protection, and there is evidence that some of these materials have the potential to be much lighter and stronger than current materials. For example, protective materials made of graphene, cellulose, and even algae have already been shown to have excellent strength-to-weight ratios. However, the challenge is in creating these materials in large quantities. The potential for extremely light and strong armor is therefore very high, but producing usable armor for troops is still a long-term goal.