The Army has been racing to equip soldiers with lighter, more durable body armor and helmets for years, a requirement that Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley reiterated during the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference in Washington on Oct. 11. And defense contractors like Gentex, the corporation behind the Army’s Advanced Combat Helmet (ACH), flooded AUSA’s tech expo to showcase the latest updates in soldier protection.
But with the help of university researchers, the Army’s own engineers just took a major step towards developing durable materials to keep American troops safe during a firefight. On Oct. 11, the Army Research Laboratory and Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology at MIT touted the benefits of “poly(urethane urea) elastomers” (PUUs), astoundingly rugged and elastic polymers that the branch described as “fifteen times stronger than steel [but] flexible like fabrics.”
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The extra strength is impressive, but the degree of flexibility is what distinguishes a PUU from the bulky average Army battle armor, with its rigid ceramic and metal plates. Instead, envision a “chainmail-like” network of PUU fibers, which deform upon impact before returning to their original thickness — allowing them to absorb more energy from, say, a 7.62mm round from a Taliban AK-47, and be good to go for reuse. As the Army Research Lab’s Dr. Alex Hsieh said in a statement, materials made up of PUUs literally “bounce back after the impact.”But the unique molecular makeup of PUUs means the fibers don’t just last longer but work harder when faced with high-speed impacts: There’s potential, according to the Army, that the materials could “change from rubber-like to glass-like when they are deformed at increasing high rates.” In layman’s terms: The harder it’s hit, the stronger it gets — not unlike the strange bulletproof goo dreamed up by an Air Force Academy cadet back in May 2017.
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While Army and MIT researchers are still exploring the capabilities and limits of the new material, the potential applications include “transparent face shields, mandible face shields, ballistic vests, extremity protective gear, and blast-resistant combat boots,” according to the branch. The application to combat helmets may prove especially important in preventing the force of a shell’s impact from transferring through the helmet and causing blunt force trauma, a problem for even the most robust protection system.
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The PUU polymer is still in the testing phase, but the Army may end up slapping the stuff onto its soldiers faster than previous personal protection systems, thanks to a coming reorganization of the branch’s procurement process. In a letter to general officers released on Oct. 6, Milley announced that the Army was poised to completely overhaul its approach to buying, testing, and fielding of new weapons and equipment as a part of a service-wide modernization effort.
The branch needs to field “not only next-generation individual and squad weapons, but also improved body armor, sensors, radios, and load-bearing exoskeletons,” Milley wrote. “Putting this all together, we must improve human performance and decision making by increasing training and assessment, starting at the Soldier level.”
The average soldier may not end up donning this post-industrial PUU chainmail before deploying to Afghanistan or Syria in the coming years, but Milley’s comments suggest that, should the PUU research continue to yield such fantastic results, such revolutionary body armor could end up in armories downrange sooner rather than later. Until then, we’ll make do with some bullet-stopping goo instead.
Jared Keller is a senior editor at Task & Purpose and contributing editor at Pacific Standard. Follow Jared Keller on Twitter @JaredBKeller.
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Image: U.S. Army