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  • Writer's pictureNed Patton

Composites for the Foot Soldier - and Marine, Sailor, etc.

With the advent of technology, satellite communication, tactical communication, array of weapons, and enough food and water to survive for at least a few days, soldiers in today’s Army and Marine Corps have to carry a LOT of stuff. On top of that, our adversaries are inventing newer and more efficient ways to hurt or kill our guys, so every combat soldier also has to have ballistic protection. Take a look at the pic in the bottom center of the graphic above for a hint of what I’m talking about here.

Fortunately, the DoD has awakened to this in a rather large way, and the composites industry has brought our fighting men and women up to speed with some of the most advanced equipment in any military on the planet. And notice I said “fighting men and women”. If you look at the pic above, you will see two of the Army’s finest fitting up in wearable ballistic armor tailored to their gender. Even the helmets come in better fitting models than just a few years ago,

primarily to provide comfort for the person wearing them. Fatigue from having improperly fitting or too heavy clothing and equipment is the last thing we need to have our brave men and women have to suffer. Just being in combat is hard enough.

Most of you have probably already heard about the evolution of the standard combat helmet, but that one item in and of itself is a very good example of the evolution in thinking that has taken place in the Department of Defense. The push toward making the combat helmet not only safer by offering ballistic protection, there has also been a push toward making it lighter weight and more comfortable to wear.

This is true of all of the ballistic protection that the modern soldier wears. Advanced composites have really come to the forefront in this area especially. Spectra and Dyneema fabrics have replaced Kevlar in the latest helmets primarily because of those fibers’ excellent strength to weight ratio. Spectra and Dyneema are the ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene fibers made by Honeywell (Spectra) and the German company DSM (Dyneema). These are the only two composite fibers that actually float on water because they are so light weight. And both of them are stronger than steel.

Some of the other applications of composites for soldiers are things like the barrel of the mortar that you see in the pic to the right. That is an 81 mm mortar that is undergoing a materials transformation. There is a developmental program ongoing right now to lighten the current mortar barrel and base plate, which are now steel. Graphite/epoxy composites are going to be used for the base plate, and a mix or potentially a nickel alloy or ceramic composite liner with a graphite/epoxy overwrap for the barrel. The main issue with the mortar barrel itself is that mortar rounds are what are called “hot launched”. This means that a propellant charge or short burning rocket motor is ignited inside the mortar barrel and the weapon itself flies out of the barrel. The temperature inside the barrel can reach 550 degrees F, so the barrel liner has to withstand the propellant burn, and the wrap has to be capable of withstanding temperatures above what normal epoxies are comfortable with. There are some high temperature resins that are being applied to this to try to make something durable, accurate, and light enough that it can be hand carried. As they say – “Lightening the Force”. That has been the buzzword for these developments for the last couple of decades.


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