I have to admit, I was surprised to see the Army and Marine Corps say they plan to begin fielding the long-awaited Enhanced Combat Helmet this fall. I posted a July 30 story about the announcement on Military.com.
For a while, it seemed that the ambitious endeavor was just a bridge too far for the services' ballistic gurus -- craft a new helmet that protects against rifle rounds but no heavier than the current Marine lightweight Helmet or the Army Advanced Combat Helmet.
All of the initial design candidates for ECH failed the first round of ballistic testing in late 2009. Then some of the ECHs began failing first article tests in 2011.
Army officials didn't say much for the story, but Marine officials blamed a lot of the program challenges on new Defense Department testing guidelines introduced in the middle of first article tests.
"The ECH 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.
Following the DOT&E protocols was a challenge because test criteria changed from a pass-fail standard to one based on statistical confidence, said 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.
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 Marine Corps Systems Command.
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.
Army and Marine equipment developers don't always get it right, but they are hard to beat when it comes to body armor. Yes, the designs can always be more adaptable, more flexible and more comfortable. But the helmets, vests and plates issued over the last decade of war have saved a hell of a lot of lives. I'm sure the ECH will do the same.