Flexing in the Line of Fire: Lightweight, Flexible Body Armor

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AFB, Ohio – In the line of fire, protective body armor plays a critical role in survival. Hard-plated, rigid and heavy—today’s National Institute of Justice Type IV body armor—the kind that protects warfighters against armor piercing bullets– defends the wearer, but adds weight and bulk that a fast-moving operator could do without.

Engineers at the Air Force Research Laboratory are working to help change this.

“Battlefield airmen, special operations forces, pararescue troops….all of these individuals are trying to move fast and fit in tight areas, but they have this rigid, bulky armor to wear,” said 1st Lt. Jason Goins, a materials research engineer in the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, AFRL. “You can move faster and work more efficiently if you have something that moves and flexes with you.”

Goins, along with fellow researchers 1st Lt. Lance Wilhelm and 2nd Lt. Mathew Couch, were approached by special operations forces who asked if they could develop armor that is lighter and more flexible, but still able to protect them in the field. If the team could develop something that could be worn undetectable under clothing, it would be even better.

Through a collaboration with the Naval Research Laboratory and the Air Force Special Operations Command, working through the directorate’s JFWORX program which provides developmental opportunities for junior members of AFRL to lead and manage projects, the team delivered the special operator’s requests—and vest prototypes that can do much more.

“These are game-changers,” said Goins. “Our flexible body armor is 50 percent lighter than current models and much thinner. Not only that, the armor can conform to both male and female body types, be dropped and still used, and protects against multiple hits. There’s nothing like this out there.”

Acting as the technical representatives for the project, the team discovered research that was started by Dr. Ray Gamache at the Naval Research Laboratory, but set aside due to funding. They evaluated the prior Navy research and commercially-available NIJ Type IV body armor to determine the need compared to current market products. After securing funding, the team worked with the Navy researchers to develop armor prototypes, which were then tested in the laboratory environment.

The new armor plate uses a ceramic ball matrix encapsulated in foam material, which is then backed with multiple layers of polyethylene sheets. Traditional Type IV armor plates, by contrast, are typically made from a solid steel or ceramic plate, weigh more than ten pounds per square foot and are unable to resist impact beyond a single round.

The game-changing armor not only provides light-weight protection, but is also able to maintain performance protection even after multiple rounds of live fire laboratory testing.

“When we first showed this to the battlefield airmen, they were shocked. Many said that there was no way that it could stop a bullet. But, we have laboratory proof that it can,” said Wilhelm.

Another benefit of the new armor is its ability to conform to multiple body shapes and sizes. This is particularly exciting, especially with the move towards women in combat roles.

“Women have typically had difficulties finding armor that fits comfortably and protects. This will help meet the growing need,” said Couch.

The flexible body armor recently finished a first round of successful live fire laboratory testing. The team is now overseeing work by the Naval Postgraduate School to ensure the materials and manufacturing processes are consistent and reliable. They are also investigating other materials that may potentially work even better than the ceramic-foam combination.

According to Goins, the armor has about eight more months of research and ballistic testing, followed by a year-long development of the manufacturing capabilities before it will be ready for the market. At most, he’s hoping to have this to the warfighter in the next year or two.

A second project for concealable body armor, emerging from the same special operations request, is currently on hold due to funding. This armor would benefit individuals in high-risk environments who need to work undercover or in secret but still protect themselves from Type IV armor-piercing rounds.

Through the use of a 3-D scanner to create a body mold and by constructing a vest of multiple hexagonal plates, the team successfully demonstrated a proof-of-concept vest for concealability. However, the tiny gaps between hexagons concern those who want to be 100 percent covered, though others are content with some protection risk versus none at all.

“We hope to continue work on that vest in the future,” said Goins, “However, right now our focus is on getting the flexible armor to the market.”

Overall, Goins stressed that this was a fantastic developmental opportunity for himself as well as the JFWORX team.

“I learned so much over the past year. It’s fun to work on a project where you can see the tangible benefits of your work,” he said. “This will really benefit the warfighter.”

The forces cannot agree more.

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