After successful stringent tests that program experts say well exceeded initial requirements, the Marine Corps is getting ready to field its new enhanced combat helmet. In the first quarter of fiscal 2014 the first of thousands of ECHs will be issued to warfighters bound for deployment. The collaboration with the Army dates from March 2009 when the Corps received an urgent requirement, which stated that the Corps needed to produce a helmet with enhanced ballistic protection from selected small-arms ammunition and fragmentation. The Navy joined the program the following year. Meanwhile, the ECH had to maintain all other characteristics of the Marines' lightweight helmet and Army's advanced combat helmet. The new helmet also had to be compatible with other components of infantry combat equipment such as body armor systems, protective goggles, night vision equipment and a camouflage fabric helmet cover.
The new requirement proved to be a tall order that was met several times, despite test protocol criteria made even more stringent as tests proceeded, according to project managers. "This is the only helmet that has been tested and passed using [Director of Operational Test and Evaluation] protocols," said Deidre Hooks, ECH team lead at Marine Corps Systems Command. MCSC took the lead, with the Army's input, in conducting ECH tests driven by DOT&E's test protocol criteria. MCSC is the Department of the Navy's systems command for Marine Corps ground weapon and information technology systems. It is also the Marine Corps commandant's agent for acquisition and sustainment of warfighting systems and equipment. Following the DOT&E protocols was a challenge because test criteria changed from a binomial -- or pass-fail -- standard to one based on statistical confidence, according to Kathy Halo, ECH lead engineer.
"One of the biggest challenges was the change in statistical methodology in the midst of the helmet testing," Halo said. "Our program was the first test subject for DOT&E's new approach." In typical equipment test and development, successful first-article testing certifies the product meets standards detailed in the original statement of work. This leads to a contract award that starts initial production. This leads to full-rate production with successful acceptance testing and fielding.
Even before the pass-fail ECH tests were complete, DOT&E introduced a new statistical protocol. Under these criteria, the ECH had to attain a 90 percent probability with 90 percent confidence that the helmet will not be penetrated, according to Col. Mike Manning, program manager for Infantry Weapons Systems at MCSC. Having passed first-article tests using DOT&E's original criteria, the ECH team turned around and proved through additional testing that the helmet could meet the revised standards, Hooks said.
After these repeated successes, there was yet another first-article test, prompted as the vendor prepared for low-rate initial production. "We identified anomalies on the production line after the final first-article test was complete," Manning said. "We fixed it, and now we're ready for production. We met every requirement of every test we've been asked to meet. I'd wear the ECH in a heartbeat." The colonel cited several benefits that arose from the ECH development and testing. "We provide value for the taxpayer by buying helmets only for warfighters being deployed," he said. "The new DOT&E protocol also taught us many lessons on how to proceed on helmet production." Halo said the final ECH, soon to be fielded, is a marked improvement over current headgear. "This helmet is above and beyond," she said. "It was tested and passed using the old standards as well as the new DOT&E protocols. The ECH surpasses anything we've had before.
"The ECH fully exploits the latest lightweight material technology, ultra-high molecular-weight polyethylene materials," Halo said. "It provides increased small-arms ballistic protection above what is currently provided by the lightweight and advanced combat helmets." Hooks added that the most important factor is the increased confidence of the warfighters who know they will enter battle with the highest-quality protection.