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REACTIVE ARMOR, in the form of add-on tiles (top), is being applied to Bradley fighting vehicles (bottom) to protect them from shaped-charge warheads. Image: COURTESY OF GENERAL DYNAMICS
Americans may view their soldiers as knights in shining armor, but in Iraq, soldiers are often short on protection, particularly while riding their mechanized steeds. As casualties rise, the Pentagon is rushing to equip its soldiers and vehicles with new and better armor. In the short term, soldiers will get body armor upgrades that better guard previously vulnerable areas like the groin and sides of the body. Some vehicles, meanwhile, will be getting special reactive armor designed to thwart rocket attacks. In the long term, however, a soldier's best protection may come from new technologies being developed by military laboratories such as the Office of Naval Research and the Army Research Laboratory.
The shortage of effective armor for troops serving in Iraq borders on the scandalous. Body armor has been in such short supply that soldiers have been buying their own. Supplementary body armor packages that protect the arms and sides of the body began shipping only in May. Soldiers are draping their Kevlar vests over the sides of unarmored Humvees and using scrap wood and metal on the vehicle's floor for makeshift protection against roadside explosives. The army is scrambling to install steel doors and bulletproof glass on Humvees as quickly as possible, a move the Army Material Command estimates could reduce casualties by 25 percent. Some 4,500 Humvees are expected to be "up-armored" by the end of this month. Meanwhile, the army's vaunted new wheeled Stryker vehicles, though armored, may not be able to withstand the impact of a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG), a favorite insurgent weapon, and now sports an unwieldy add-on metal cage for extra protection.
"What's been highlighted in Iraq is how do you provide protection to people riding in wheeled vehicles," says Bruce Fink, chief of the materials division of the Army Research Laboratory (ARL). "Historically, we have not put a lot of effort into trying to protect people in wheeled vehicles because they weren't supposed to be in areas where they are under direct fire. But, unfortunately, that's the situation we're in--where we're getting a lot of direct fire at wheeled vehicles."
Indeed, the army lists both body armor and wheeled vehicle protection among its top 10 capability gaps. Helping to bridge that gap is a new type of add-on reactive armor jointly developed by Rafael Armament Development Authority in Israel and the General Dynamics' Armament and Technical Products unit in Burlington,Vt. Reactive armor is being added to tracked Bradley fighting vehicles as a counter to RPGs after its successful--and secret--use by Israeli defense forces for many years. According to a spokeperson for General Dynamics, reactive armor consists of 105 tiles that attach to the sides, turret and front of each Bradley. The tiles, which look like small boxes, contain a special explosive charge that detonates when hit by a missile or rocket with a shaped-charge warhead. The resulting explosion disrupts the incoming, armor-penetrating gas jet produced by a RPG, for example, so the Bradley remains unharmed. Upgrading Bradley fighting vehicles with reactive armor is a process that will continue for some time. Rafael and General Dynamics will produce 80 kits for the U.S. Army this fall in a deal worth $23.5 million and another 60 kits for $17 million by July of 2005.
Humvees and Stryker vehicles, however, cannot support the added weight of reactive armor. Just adding steel plating to Humvees places added strain on suspension and drivetrain systems not designed with armor in mind, putting those vehicles out of service more frequently than expected. The solution may be spray-on polymer armor now being developed by the U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research (ONR). The spray-on armor is similar to a polymer commonly used as a spray-on truck bed liner. It's made from either polyurethane, polyurea or a mixture of the two. When applied to steel, the polymer spreads out the shock of an explosion and helps prevent impacted material from shattering. In tests, a 500-pound bomb detonated near two trailers obliterated the unarmored trailer but only buckled the walls of the trailer whose walls were coated with the rubbery polymer.