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Body armor

India is in the process of creating the Future Infantry Soldier As a System (F-INSAS). The conceptual framework of the project is to impart increased protection (survivability), lethality with a range of higher caliber infantry weapons, mobility and the ability to fight at night. It is, thus, an amalgamation of each of these capabilities on each soldier of the Indian Army from 2020 onwards.

Of special interest is ‘protection’ given that lethality has increased in the hands of the enemy. The idea is to improve protection to a level higher than what is suggested in the benchmarks provided by the American National Institute of Justice (NIJ) for the ability to withstand the impact of munitions of different calibers. (Caliber is the measurement in millimeters of the base of the bullet. For artillery weapons the length of the barrel of a gun is a figure obtained by the multiplication of the base of the shell).

In small arms or handguns the lethality is the product of the caliber of the bullet. A larger caliber will generate a larger force or kinetic energy and hence have greater penetrability. It is this penetrability that the NIJ uses as a benchmark for the creation of body armor-that a particular category of bulletproof jacket will withstand the impact of a given bullet. Modern day bullets range from 5.56 mm caliber to 7.56mm intended for use against infantrymen.

India, which not long ago had standardized the infantryman’s weapon around the 5.56 mm caliber-rifle, carbine and light machinegun-is working on producing a new caliber weapon of 8.6 mm incorporated in a multi-caliber weapon which would include an under barrel grenade launcher that is to dispense a grenade that will explode in the air in classic “top attack’ mode.

Protection

Having identified the threat to the infantryman it needs to be analyzed how the infantryman is to be protected from the danger of flying bullets. Reports from Afghanistan reveal that one solider of the US International Security Assistance Force shot an unsuspecting Taliban leader from a distance of 2,500 meters with a sniper rifle. Where the rapidity of firing is considered desirable the dangers to the infantryman have multiplied since the rifle was first used in war.

Hence the requirement to create advanced body armor that will cover not just the essential body parts but also those that facilitate movement and contribute to the accurate delivery of the weapon in the soldier’s hand.

Hitherto, body armor has been carried on the body as plates either of steel or ceramics hung on the chest and back to prevent a bullet from entering and hitting the heart, lungs and upper alimentary canal (stomach). But soldiers died of gunshot wounds in their thousands even when clad with these “bullet proof jackets” provoking one commentator to exclaim: There is no such thing as a bullet proof jacket. The two plates together added to the overall weight that an infantryman needed to carry into the battlefield. In hot weather conditions the soldier becomes drenched with his own sweat thereby affecting the soldier’s ability to give of his best against the enemy.

Nations around the globe are trying to provide more protection to the soldier but it tends to add to the total weight that the man has to carry into battle.  The current trend of creating “advanced” armor is largely an attempt to cover the gaps that exist between the front and back plates under the armpit, around the neck and over the shoulders. Also, integral to the uniform itself special pads have been added along the knees and shins to reduce the effect of flying shrapnel.

The requirement is of improved bullet proof material that is both lighter and can deal with threats higher in the NIJ scale which currently stands at NIJ II+. According to plans the future uniform will be waterproof and ‘breathable’ given the experience of soldiers becoming drenched in their own sweat.

The new uniform will enable the troops to carry extra load and resist the impact of nuclear, chemical and biological warfare. Uniform will also carry solar chargers for charging palmtops and other attached electronic equipment. It will contain external oxygen supply and respirator providing protection against gas and smoke and will include flame-retardant, carbonized viscose undergarments, fire-proof knee and elbow pads.

However, the revelation that the bullet proofing will be on the basis of ceramic plates indicates that the possibility of reduction of weight is very limited. Four companies currently produce two of the most widely used ceramics in bullet proof jackets. Du Pont and Teijin produce the Kevlar and Twaron fibres that are woven into bullet-resistant fabric as well as a ceramic plate carrying the Du Pont insignia. Honeywell and the Dutch firm DSM produce the Dyneema or Spectra. These are generally used worldwide.

It has become obvious that any major improvement in body armor will have to be led by new materials. In the columns of Strategic Affairs it had been advocated that the best results could be obtained by fashioning materials by nanotechnology to get lightweight plates to replace the ceramics that cannot be reduced any further without compromising the quality of impenetrability.

Improvements

The current spate of “advanced” body armor is merely an exercise in creating pockets to receive inserts that are made from bullet proof material. There is very little possibility of reducing weight which will cause problems for the fighting man in the long term. In the Indian context the greater danger that is emerging is not so much from bullets but from improvised explosive devices.

The shrapnel released by these devices tend to skim the ground even while blooming upwards and outwards. The damage to human tissue can be widespread leading to unacceptable loss of blood leading to death. The crotch downwards requires additional protection even while there is enough flexibility in the bullet proof device to allow the soldier to run, crawl and fire from a kneeling position.

Given India’s high ambient summer temperatures in north India which crosses 50 degrees Centigrade in the desert areas wearing bullet proof uniforms for any length of time could be excruciating. This is the area where traditionally the wars with Pakistan have been fought though Indian Generals have managed to arrange the fight in the cooler months between September and December.

Yet India has also had to fight in the mountains where too much protection can prove to be counter-productive. The Indian experience in Kargil was that India soldiers climbing up to dislodge the entrenched Pakistanis were shot in the head and the metal ‘patka’ was of little use. The ‘patka’ is a round, flat dish-type contraption that does not have the roundness that could deflect a bullet. Deflecting a bullet with your head is not recommended by mountain climbers given that the climber is already in a precarious position trying to hold on to the mountain. The shot in the head, if it does not kill you outright will knock you off your perch to death below. So how does a “bullet proof” helmet help? It doesn’t.

The core systems of F-INSAS comprise helmet and visor, clothing, weapons and accessories. The helmet is an integrated assembly equipped with helmet mounted flash light, thermal sensors and night vision device, digital compass, video cameras, computer and nuclear, chemical and biological sensors, with audio headsets. The visor is intended to be integrated and to act as a heads-up display monitor equivalent to two 17-inch computer monitors.

According to few reports the armored helmet in FINSAS is capable of stopping a 9mm round at close range. One wonders how this experiment was conducted to test the efficacy of the armored helmet. Was it on a live human being?

It is very unlikely because a human neck is usually unable to take the impact of a bullet of any size unless the helmet has shock absorbers inside or the ricochet is such that impact is deflected with near zero effect on the head. This is rare.