Sometimes the only thing separating life from death for soldiers on a battlefield is the gear that protects them. And much of it is made from high-tech polymers developed in recent years.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) is the modern-day version of a suit of armor, and with threats such as IEDs, urban warfare and extreme weather conditions, it must now be stronger than ever without hindering the mobility essential to staying alive in a war zone.
To address the new and changing threats that soldiers encounter every day in modern war zones and protect our servicemen and women, equipment manufacturers are turning to new materials made from petrochemicals to better protect from head injury, ballistic threats and blunt impacts. Thanks to the lightweight and incredibly strong polymers they create, petrochemicals are playing an increasing role in lightening soldiers’ loads on the battlefield and keeping them safe. These building blocks be found in everything. And all of this PPE plays a critical role in saving soldier’s lives.
From helmets made with bulletproof polyethylene 40 percent stronger than Kevlar, to the futuristic shear-thickening fluids that may soon help disperse the force of incoming bullets – to the para-aramid and nylon fibers that go into combat uniforms and the polycarbonate lenses that make up protective eyewear.
“The Army is providing the absolute best proactive equipment out there, while at the same time lightening the soldier’s load,” said Captain Alan Chartier, Assistant Product Manager of Head Protection Equipment at Program Executive Office (PEO) Soldier, which works to ensure warriors receive state-of-the-art protection to defeat and reduce threats.
According to service-provided data, the typical total load in 2016 for Army and Marine Corps ground combat personnel averaged about 119 and 117 pounds, respectively, of which the primary PPE represented about 27 pounds. Officials stated that these totals have increased over time based on the incorporation of new PPE and other equipment, though efforts are now underway to lighten troops’ loads.
In fact, the imperative for lightening soldiers’ loads goes far beyond making their lives a bit less strenuous during long, grueling missions. Lightweight equipment is increasingly becoming a medical necessity. An Army Science Board study from 2001 noted that weight carried by soldiers can decrease mobility and increase injury and fatigue. The study recommended that no soldier carry more than 50 pounds for any period of time – a goal that Army leaders hoped to achieve by 2010.
Yet one recent report found that soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to carry an average of 119 pounds apiece – and as a result, one-third of medical evacuations on the battlefield from 2004 to 2007 were due to spinal, connective tissue or musculoskeletal injuries. That figure is twice as many injuries as were sustained from combat. And the long-term implications for these injuries are significant. Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans are increasingly facing diagnoses of degenerative arthritis, cervical strains and other chronic musculoskeletal injuries. From 2003 to 2009 alone, the number of retired Army soldiers reporting musculoskeletal injuries increased tenfold. Annual disability benefits paid for these injuries by the Department of Veterans Affairs already exceed $500 million, and that figure is expected to grow each year as more veterans apply for compensation.
There has been considerable innovation over the last decade for head protection in particular. From 2000-2018, the military developed three next-generation protective combat helmets: the Advanced Combat Helmet (ACH), the Enhanced Combat Helmet (ECH) and the new Integrated Head Protection System (IHPS) that was recently launched on a small scale. These helmets contain one specific high-tech material called Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene. This polyethylene is 15 times stronger than steel, which makes it an instrumental part in keeping our military safe.
Currently, deployment soldiers are issued the Enhanced Combat Helmet, the first helmet to offer rifle round protection and use thermoplastics instead of the ballistic fibers. The ECH is about the same weight as the ACH but provides increased security and exceeded the 35 percent ballistic improvement requirement.
The Army’s newest combat helmet, the Integrated Head Protection System, was developed by PEO Solider and their industry partners. This modular helmet system allows commanders and soldiers to tailor the protection based on the mission set. IHPS is different than any other helmet the Army has fielded. It has three configurations consisting of the helmet shell, a high threat configuration that includes a one-piece applique, and a maximal facial system with attachable mandible and visor.
Faced with increasing calls to decrease soldiers’ loads – without jeopardizing their safety or protection on the battlefield – lightweight polymers are being increasingly deployed in the creation of PPE, and their merit is not going unnoticed.
Hundreds of soldiers have provided testimonies to the value of their protective equipment. One of the most common testimonials is found in a Military.com article. Sgt. Thalamus Lewis was on patrol in Afghanistan when he felt like something blew him to the side of the road.
He didn’t know it at the time, but an enemy rifle round had struck his Advanced Combat Helmet on the right side of the helmet.
“I just had a ringing in my ears and a slight headache,” he said at one of many PEOS ceremonies that unite soldiers with the PPE that saved their lives. The gear is often mounded on a special wooden plaque.
“Once they told me I took a round to the ACH, my first thing was I want to see it,” Lewis said. “I looked at it, and I was like OK, the inside of it the right side of it where I took the round was all puffed out, so that is when I started saying ‘it actually works.”
The helmet likely saved his life.
Photos provided by Program Executive Office Soldier, an American governmental organization responsible for rapid prototyping, procurement, and fielding of equipment for its soldiers.