Rory Copinger-Symes retired from the Royal Marines last year, after enlisting in 1983.
During his decades of service he saw a dramatic change in the equipment he was given, particularly armor.
“The armor has evolved over my 37 years,” says the retired sergeant. “It got more effective but frankly it got heavier, which was a problem.”
In recent decades, modern body armor has been made from synthetic fibers such as Kevlar, combined with metal or ceramic plates known as trauma plates.
While good at stopping bullets and other threats, that combination was heavier than previous materials which included multiple layers of ballistic nylon and sometimes fiberglass plates.
While Copinger-Symes claims that Kevlar armor “isn’t particularly uncomfortable,” it does have drawbacks.
“Obviously worn in hot climates is not pleasant,” he explains. “As a result of the weight of the armor, we would tend to limit other items being carried, but weapons and ammunition were essential.”
The weight and comfort problems of armor are common to all armed forces.
A fully equipped version of the US Army’s Improved External Tactical Vest, complete with four ballistic plates and collar and groin protectors, can weigh nearly 14kg.
It is much more than the Vietnam-era vest which weighed only 8 pounds (3.6 kg).
Every extra pound of armor adds to already enormous loads for modern soldiers.
With weapons, food, batteries and other tools, American infantry in Iraq and Afghanistan sometimes carried up to 45 kg of equipment, a burden for even the fittest soldiers.
Over time, carrying such a burden can contribute to injuries. In the United States, statistics from the Department of Veterans Affairs indicate that the number of veterans who retired for musculoskeletal problems increased more than 10 times between 2003 and 2009.
Prized for its strength and affordability, Kevlar has been the most common material in armor for over 40 years.
But it is being replaced by a new material that goes by the bulky name of ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE).
It draws strength from its very long molecules and modern manufacturing techniques take advantage of this feature. Some brands of UHMWPE are advertised to have 15 times the strength of steel for the same weight.
Although early versions of the materials have been available for decades, it is only in recent years that they have gained market acceptance and have become the option of choice for many forces around the world.
However, there is an additional complication for armor makers.
User protection goes beyond catching a bullet or splinter. The armor must also prevent the energy of those bullets from being transferred to the wearer.
Currently, new materials are less effective at doing this. The vest could stop the bullet, but the wearer could still die.
The common solution is to add more polyethylene and other materials to try to prevent that trauma, which obviously adds weight.
Colin Metzer, director of blast and ballistics at Colorado-based Skydex, says increasingly sophisticated materials will improve the situation.
For example, armor-mounted ceramic plates are getting better, with newer versions using materials such as boron carbide.
“There is a continuous development of raw materials, which can then be integrated back into the armor which increases performance while reducing weight,” says Metzer.
Even modest improvements in weight or protection, ideally both, could make a life-saving difference for soldiers or police.
Someone carrying more weight will be slower and less agile, a problem for a soldier trying to quickly climb a steep hill or cross a river.
“Being able to quickly reach safety can be a matter of life and death,” Metzer emphasizes. “The best case for any war fighter is not to get hit at all.”
In the long run, many body armor experts believe that nanotechnology, in which materials are manipulated on a molecular or supramolecular scale, could mean extremely lightweight body armor that looks more like clothing.
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US Army researchers they said thin spandex-like armor may be possible in the future.
Among the researchers working in this space is University of Sussex professor Alan Dalton, the principal scientific advisor to the nanotechnology company Advanced Material Development. He is also the founder and CEO of Vestguard, which supplies both the UK Department of Defense and the US Department of Defense.
Professor Dalton believes that lightweight, futuristic materials may mean that other heavy pieces of kit carried by soldiers can be integrated into the armor, turning it into wearable technology that can also protect a user.
“This would mean, for example, inserting communication devices such as antennas directly into the fabrics or infrastructure of a uniform,” he says.
Additionally, Professor Dalton says future systems may even be able to change the way a soldier might appear to a thermal imaging system.
“I could potentially change the apparent temperature down to something close to the background temperature. If someone were using a thermal imaging camera, I would blend in with the background,” says Prof Dalton.
It is a feature that compares to the creatures of the science fiction franchise Predator. In those films, the alien could blend in with the background without any thermal imprint.
In the real world, retired brigadier Rory Copinger-Symes says such nanotechnology could make a big difference to service personnel.
“If it can incorporate an antenna, a power source, or maybe all the pockets and stuff I need, it would make the rest of my operational life easier.”
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