A top designer of flexible body armor similar to the much-vaunted Dragon Skin says he has just tested a new type of ballistic material that is far harder than current plates and can defeat one of the most deadly armor piercing rounds in the world.
And it can do all this at the same weight as a standard Enhanced Small Arms Protective Plate, but in a more flexible and comfortable package, developer Allan Bain claims.
Bain, who body armor experts agree was a founding father -- with Dragon Skin maker Murray Neal -- of the so-called "scalar" armor concept, has developed a new way to forge the ceramic that goes into the bullet-blocking plates, giving it greater density and the ability to be bent into odd shapes.
"This is probably about as cutting edge as it gets," Bain told Military.com during an October 15 phone interview about the new armor, "Skaalar Exoskin Gen 4+". "An E-SAPI plate is an inch thick. Then you've got the vest This [SEG4+] is an inch thick with everything included."
With the help of experts at Georgia Tech University, Bain produces his armored disks in an oven that reaches nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit - nearly half the surface temperature of the sun - to make the ceramic stronger, smaller and without sacrificing weight.
SEG4+ body armor wraps around the wearer like Dragon Skin, weighs about 7.5 pounds per square foot of coverage -- about the same as a standard-issue E-SAPI plate -- but delivers far more protection with "gapless, seamless" coverage for high-powered armor piercing rounds.
The military's current body armor system, with two rigid front and back pates and two side plates, leaves open areas with no defense against rifle rounds.
But don't get your hopes up that SEG4+ will be on order anytime soon for troops.
Manufacturing costs is one reason. Army caution is another.
Bain said the armor is currently so expensive to make that only the most elite units would likely be able to afford it. Special Forces may order and use armor the regular Army doesn't get, and is currently testing this to see of it's something they want.
And officials with the Army's Program Executive Office Soldier confirmed to Military.com that the service was putting its search for flexible armor on hold because it deemed the scalar technology too immature.
But don't tell Bain his armor isn't ready.
"At this point in time, if someone wanted 100 of these we could deliver them," he said.
The best known scalar system, Dragon Skin, is manufactured by Fresno, Calif.-based Pinnacle Armor. However Dragon Skin has a shaky reputation within the Army - which does the majority of armor testing, design and procurement for the services - after Pinnacle's feisty president, Murray Neal, launched a full-scale public relations war touting his vest's superiority after ballistics tests conducted by the Army in May 2006 showed Dragon Skin failing basic ballistics and durability tests.
Neal's public campaign got Congress got involved, with hearings on Capitol Hill to get to the bottom of the controversy. Lawmakers ordered the Army to do further tests and the service asked industry to submit samples of flexible systems and armor that could withstand rounds more powerful than the current E-SAPI plate.
The Army planned to test the armor concepts later that year but had to postpone the evaluation after manufacturers asked for more time to acquire the exotic materials and do more testing of their own.
PEO Soldier officials at Fort Belvoir, Va., said the service will begin testing in November on new E-SAPI and X-SAPI designs - more than a year after the Army had originally intended to shoot the experimental plates.
Officials also said the flexible-system test will not go ahead as planned because "an F-SAPI capability has not reached the level [of] technical maturity to protect Soldiers in combat," PEO Soldier said in an email response to Military.com.
Bain was cagey about the specific design and shape of his armor components but said it makes heavy use of lightweight polymers such as Dyneema and Kevlar fabric to achieve its ballistic resistance capability. The super-hardened ceramic retains 100 percent of its density after manufacture, as compared to a standard plate with 93 percent density, he added.
"It's still some type of a disk," Bain said. "But we've made interlocks. We've eliminated weak spots. We've made it very difficult for a bullet to hit a flat surface."
"Everything's geared toward getting that bullet to hit a severe angle," he added.
In September, Bain subjected his armor to ballistic tests with shots from a Swiss-made armor piercing round that is more powerful than the one specified by the Army for its X-SAPI capability (for security reasons Military.com has declined to name the specific round the Army wants to beat).
The round shattered the tile, penetrated nine layers of Kevlar but was largely stopped by the Dyneema backing.
"That's a really good stop," Bain said. "And that's a phase-one tile. We've already redesigned it."
With more support from industry, Bain thinks he can cut down on the cost of the vest - currently, each tile costs about $50 to make - and with continued design improvements, he might be able to shave off some weight.
But for now, the Exoskin Gen 4+ is reserved for special operations troops and other high-risk forces, though Bain feels he's demonstrated that the technology is there for flexible armor that defeats the meanest threats.
"This is the kind of process that can lend itself to making the 'Star Wars' style armor with lots of different segmented shapes," Bain said. "It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see what you can do with that."