Sci Fi Armor a Ways Off

If you were hoping that shear thickening fluids, carbon nanotubes and lightweight flexible armor was just around the corner, you'll need to put those hopes on hold and keep reading your sci-fi books.

Despite the US and allied militaries' best efforts to lighten one of the biggest culprits of a trooper's heavy load, armor manufacturers are having a hard time making quantum leaps in increased protection and weight savings.

I spoke with reps from First Choice armor on the floor of SHOT Show in Vegas last week and they described how they'd cracked the nut of shaving some ounces while keeping bullet-stopping ballistic performance by tweaking materials and weaves and developing some hybrids.

First Choice's new Level IIIA vest comes in just under the one pound per square foot gold standard for protection -- at .93 pounds per ft2. They also showed me a pretty sweet 10"x12" Level III+ plate that weighs just 3.8 lbs using what they termed a "unidirectional-ceramic hybrid" -- which basically means a boron carbide/spectra-dyneema sandwich.

Basically the rep told me the industry is still struggling with requirements for continuously more resistant armor with no weight penalty. The reality of today's material science means companies like First Choice get requests from the military that say "I want armor that can stop this exotic round and weigh less than current vests..." a near impossible feat.

I asked the ballistics expert about the fetish with "flexible" armor solutions and he said his company spent some money and about a year looking into it, but they found no easy way around the weight problems and coverage gaps that scaled systems present.

"We gave up on the effort for now," he said.

Perhaps that's why only one company,Pinnacle, played in the Army's F-SAPI search last year. No one else could make a solution that didn't weigh a ton (or cost a fortune, as Alan Bain admitted to us).

Sor for now, it looks like the military is going to have to shave armor weight at the margins -- that is until science can find ways to manufacture nanostructures in quantities and costs that enable a Level IV vest at t-shirt weights.

-- Christian

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