Lightweight plastic body armor will replace Kevlar-based protective equipment used by U.S. troops in 2019.
The new Torso and Extremities Protection system, which has been undergoing field testing at bases across the U.S., weighs about 23 pounds -- 25 percent lighter than gear worn today, said Lt. Col. Kathy Brown, a program manager for Soldier Protection and Individual Equipment at Program Executive Office Soldier.
"We are looking at further developing the system," she said. "We think we can lose more weight."
It's unclear exactly how much the new gear will cost; however, Brown said it will be cheaper than the current equipment and offer the same level of protection.
The new armor is designed to offer maximum flexibility and mobility, she said. It can be scaled up or down depending on the mission so troops working in less-risky environments can wear less cumbersome gear, said Doug Graham, PEO Soldier spokesman.
"You can look at your mission and wear as much as you need," he said. "That will allow you to adjust the weight you are carrying to fit what you will be doing."
For lower-risk missions, troops can wear a ballistic combat shirt, which protects the upper back, chest, neck and arms, under their jackets, he said. If a threat increases, they can add more protection, such as ceramic plates and a tactical carrier.
Over the past two years, hundreds of troops from U.S.-based Army and Marine Corps units have been giving their feedback after field-testing the new gear, Brown said. PEO Soldier did not provide Stars and Stripes access to those who tested the gear, but Brown said feedback has been positive. For example, 95 percent of soldiers who wear the ballistic combat shirt rate it highly, she said.
The key to reducing body armor weight has been changing soft materials from Kevlar to polyethylene -- a type of plastic. The Army is also developing polyethylene helmets to replace the Kevlar versions, Brown said. Vendors have also dropped the weight of ceramic plates in the body armor by altering their manufacturing technique.
Lighter body armor will help troops avoid injuries caused by heavy loads, although it's unclear how much more gear troops will carry in the future, Brown said.
"The Army is constantly trying to make soldiers' loads lighter," she said.
The Army is assessing exactly what type of equipment troops need for particular missions with a view of minimizing the weight they have to carry, she said.
The unisex body armor's design also takes into account earlier efforts to make items comfortable to the female form, Brown said.
"We tried to make sure our equipment was all-encompassing," she said. "Now we have a system that encompasses both male and female soldiers."