NEW MATERIALS AND DESIGNS
DuPont invented a new material called aramid fiber in the 1960s. This was a class of strong, heat-resistant synthetic fibers that had many desirable properties. It was eventually marketed under the trade name of Kevlar, and the name would become synonymous with “bulletproof material.” Kevlar represented a breakthrough, enabling a leap ahead in technology of synthetic composite materials. The U.S. government selected Kevlar over other materials that were available at the time, such as nylon, e-glass fiber, and stretched polypropylene. The government was already molding the M1 helmet liner with a similar matched-tool compression molding process, so that the same manufacturing process could be used to make Kevlar helmets.
The Personnel Armor System for Ground Troops (PASGT) was the first helmet to use Kevlar. PASGT refers to both vests and helmets made of Kevlar, and they were used by all military services from the mid-1980s to around the middle of the last decade. These helmets are still being used by some services but will be replaced in the future.
The U.S. Special Operations Command designed and developed the Modular Integrated Communications Helmet (MICH) as a replacement for PASGT. MICH had several changes, including improved Kevlar aramid-fiber reinforcement, leading to better protection. They also allowed better fit and integration of communication headsets. MICH was adopted by the U.S. Army in 2002 as its basic helmet and renamed the Advanced Combat Helmet. The Marine Corps decided to use a design profile that was similar to the PASGT and designated it the Light Weight Helmet (LWH).
There were also developments in helmet retention systems. The M1 “steel pot” used a nylon cord suspension system, sweatband, and chinstrap, and the PASGT helmet and its variants also used similar retention systems. The MICH, ACH, and LWH helmets switched to a multi-pad and four-point retention system that had better impact protection while providing increased comfort.
Helmet multi-pad and four-point retention systems.
The next major advance in helmet technology resulted from a combination of advances in materials and manufacturing processes. A new generation of ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene fibers (UHMWPE) was developed in industry. In parallel, the government funded efforts to address technology gaps that had previously precluded manufacture of thermoplastic-based fibers and matrices for affordable soldier protection systems. The programs focused on developing new technologies, tooling, and hybridization techniques to enable commercially available and emerging grades of thermoplastic ballistic composite materials to be formed into complex helmet shapes. There was participation from the Marine Corps, U.S. Special Operations Command, and the industrial sector. These efforts enabled the development of the Future Assault Shell Technology (FAST) helmet, the Maritime helmet, and, ultimately, the U.S. Marine Corps Enhanced Combat Helmet (ECH). The FAST helmet is significant for its early use of UHMWPE material and its novel design.
To improve ballistic protection, the Army has initiated several developmental programs over the last decade. These include the Scorpion, Objective Force Warrior, and Future Force Warrior programs. The goal of the Scorpion program was to improve protection and performance through an integrated system. It tried to address the continuing problem of protection while also providing the soldier with capability, such as communications, hearing protection, and displays, needed in an evolving battlefield environment. The program also explored the use of materials with better ballistic performance and processing concepts to deliver increased structural performance. In addition, the program examined how to provide more options in helmet shaping, compatibility, and ergonomics as well as device and accoutrement integration. These early efforts would ultimately result in an entirely new generation of helmet technologies, designs, and manufacturing processes.
Have any questions or points you'd like to add? Please let us know in the comments section below.