Navy Helicopter Crews May Be Getting a New Armored Survival Vest

Navy aircrew endurance survival vest 2013
Sailors demonstrate the redesigned aircrew endurance survival vest, with improved ballistic protection, superior load distribution and a new universal color for deployment in a wider variety of terrains in December 2013. (Kelly Schindler/U.S. Navy)

The Navy is shopping for a new armored vest for helicopter pilots and crew members -- and is asking manufacturers to submit their best design proposals.

According to a solicitation published on the official U.S. federal contracting site, Naval Air Systems Command is looking for a vest capable of protecting crews from hostile fires, and ensuring water survival in case of a maritime emergency.

"The overall design priority for all operators is that the vest cut and compactness enable the wearer to be highly mobile for in-cockpit visual scanning and physical movement as well as post-crash survival and evasion scenarios, including the ability to rapidly jettison a negatively buoyant hard plate in water," officials wrote in the solicitation.

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The Navy's looking for vests that will work for crews in a variety of rotorcraft platforms, from Marine Corps heavy-lift and attack helicopters to the Navy's ship-based maritime choppers. Aircraft crew who may be equipped with new vests include those for the Marines' AH-1 Viper, UH-1 Venom, MV-22 Osprey, CH-53E Super Stallion and CH-53K King Stallion; and the Navy's MH-60 Seahawks. The solicitation notes that separate vest models may be needed to meet the requirements of crews in different aircraft.

"Priorities for these capabilities may differ between pilots and crew of the same aircraft, and between aircraft platforms," it added.

The vests the Navy wants need to be able to hold the soft armor inserts used by the Army's modular scalable vest or the Marine Corps' Gen. III plate carrier, according to documents. They also need to be flexible, light and protective enough to allow the following:

  • Survival, escape and evasion maneuvers
  • No interference with pre-flight or in-flight jobs
  • Flights of six to 12 hours without back pain or heat stress
  • Room to carry mission and survival gear
  • A secure fit in a variety of uniform configurations
  • Wear of up to six years without need for replacement.

They also need to pack some serious protection. According to the solicitation, wearers of the vest need to be able to depend on it to survive the following: exposure in "cold turbulent seas" following a ditching event; rapid exit of the aircraft through a fireball; close-range small arms fire on ground from 9mm or 7.62mm AP rounds; and close detonation of anti-aircraft munition in flight.

Naval air crews have been fielded progressively lighter and more protective survival vests as technology develops. In 2009, the service first delivered a one-piece protective vest solution to crews, replacing separate body armor and survival vest systems. And in 2013, the Navy rolled out a redesigned "aircrew endurance survival vest," which officials said offered better ballistic protection and load distribution.

Since then, however, the Army and Marine Corps have both fielded new lighter and better-fitting body armor to troops. The Navy wants to catch up with the technology in those systems and possibly find a modular solution that can be adapted to the needs of various aircraft platforms and crew functions, the solicitation indicates.

A survival vest industry day event took place Feb. 25-26, 2020 at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, according to the documents. The Navy is now asking for responses from industry by Feb. 16.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct information regarding a vest industry day.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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