Posted : Wednesday Jun 9, 2010
Marines downrange could be wearing tougher, better fitting helmets and body armor by Spring 2011, a top acquisitions officer told members of the defense industry outside Washington on May 25.
The Enhanced Combat Helmet, which officials say will be capable of stopping a rifle round, should enter its next testing phase in the coming weeks, said Lt. Col. A.J. Pasagian, head of Infantry Combat Equipment at Marine Corps Systems Command in Quantico, Va. All five test models — made by four companies — failed to provide adequate protection from bullets, blunt force or both during initial tests conducted in September, but Pasagian said he is “cautiously optimistic” that upgraded models will prove more successful.
The new helmet, which will be fielded by the Army as well as the Corps, will provide at least 35 percent more protection against fragmentation and small-arms fire than existing Kevlar helmets, Pasagian said. With enemy snipers rivaling IEDs as the chief threat facing U.S. troops in combat, officials have said they want this new head gear to stop a 7.62mm round, the caliber of ammunition used in AK47 assault rifles favored by insurgents.
Marines in Afghanistan report that although enemy snipers usually work solo, “Taliban fire teams” have been known to ambush them, often with three insurgents firing simultaneously from different positions.
The Marine-led effort to develop the ECH has locked onto the possibilities of a durable, lightweight plastic known as ultrahigh molecular weight polyethylene, Pasagian said last summer. The material is used commercially in everything from artificial hip replacements to police body armor, he said.
For nearly three decades, Marines and soldiers have worn helmets made of DuPont’s Kevlar.
The new helmet’s shape will more closely resemble the Army Combat Helmet, offering less overall coverage to Marines but allowing for more situational awareness. The “majority of Marines” endorsed the change during testing because they said it allowed them to shoot, move and communicate more efficiently, Pasagian said.
Initial plans called for the Corps to purchase 38,500 new helmets early this year, but the test failures pushed that timeline back. Pasagian has said that all four companies — Mine Safety Appliances of Pittsburgh; Gentex Corp .of Carbondale, Pa.; BAE Systems Aerospace and Defense Group Inc. of Rockville, Md.; and Ceradyne Inc. of Costa Mesa, Calif. — had to make significant design improvements, but he declined to elaborate.
At least one of those companies will be ready to begin its second round of testing in the next month, Pasagain said. It’s unclear where the other companies stand.
If these developmental tests are successful, the Corps will conduct another round of user evaluations followed by one more set of tests to ensure the helmet is compatible with Marines’ other gear, such as helmet-mounted night-vision goggles.
At the same time, SysCom officials are working to field the Improved Modular Tactical Vest, a lighter and more comfortable alternative to their existing body armor. Production is slated to begin by the end of September, officials said, but it’s unclear exactly when they will end up downrange.
Marines have said for years that they want body armor that protects them from sniper fire and IEDs but isn’t so bulky it slows them down on the battlefield. Officials say the IMTV will meet those criteria.
The new vests will feature a larger opening at the neck and an improved cummerbund to prevent chaffing, Pasagian said, which has been a long-standing complaint from the field.
It also is expected to weigh less than the 32-pound Modular Tactical Vest, first introduced in 2006, although Pasagian declined to say what the difference will be.
“We’ve taken the best industry has to offer with the MTV. The IMTV comes with irrefutable knowledge, which we learned the hard way in a nine-year protracted war,” Pasagian said. “So when I say I’m confidant we’ve found the solution, I mean exactly that.”
Marines deploying to Afghanistan next year will be issued the IMTV and the lighter Scalable Plate Carrier. Commanders on the ground tailor body-armor requirements to threat levels in a specific area.