Trials of the U.S. military's new general-issue plastic helmet have hit a snag, according to published reports and Defense Department sources.
Marine Corps Times reported Jan. 11 that prototypes of the enhanced combat helmet (ECH) that is under development in a joint Army-Marine Corps program failed the Marines' tests for protection against bullets and blunt force.
Five molded ultrahigh-molecular-weight polyethylene helmets from four current military suppliers were tested for bullet resistance, as well as protection from blast waves, rolled-over vehicles and shrapnel, the newspaper reported.
The failures have set the ECH program back, Lt. Col. A.J. Pasagian with Marine Corps Systems Command in Quantico, Va., acknowledged in a Jan. 14 e-mail.
We plan to provide the vendors an opportunity to redesign their helmet solutions and then to conduct another round of testing in fiscal-year 2010 on this urgent and compelling product/program, he said.
The Marines, who supervise ECH development, would not comment on specific failures of the test helmets or give details of the design requirements or the prototypes' construction.
The Defense Department in 2009 awarded contracts worth about $8 million for development of ECH prototypes to the following firms:
* Mine Safety Appliances Co. of Pittsburgh $4.7 million.
* Gentex Corp. of Carbondale, Pa. $1.8 million.
* BAE Systems Aerospace & Defense Group Inc. of Rockville, Md. $764,000.
* Ceradyne Inc. of Costa Mesa, Calif. $729,000.
MSA and Gentex referred questions about the ECH to the Marine Corps. BAE and Ceradyne did not return requests for comment.
The U.S. military adopted its first plastic helmet the personnel armor system for ground troops, or PASGT for general service in the early 1980s, replacing the World War II-vintage M1 steel pot with a Kevlar helmet, to address concerns about the older helmet's protective ability and weight.
Weight continued to be an issue, especially with specialist troops: In his 1999 book Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War, author Mark Bowden describes Delta Force special forces soldiers operating in 1993 in Somalia while wearing commercially available plastic hockey helmets which the book graphically describes as providing Sgt. 1st Class Earl Fillmore no protection from bullets.
Post-9-11, the military attempted to address concerns about the PASGT helmet's 3- to 4-pound weight, its comfort, protection level and ability to accommodate communications headsets, night-vision goggles, and other equipment. The Army issued the TC-2000 Kevlar helmet, known as the advanced combat helmet (ACH), made by MSA, and the Marines adopted a similar model called the lightweight helmet, which is produced by Gentex.
Once testing is complete, Marine Corps Times reported, the Army plans to buy 200,000 of the ECH helmets, and the Marines would buy about 42,000 initially. The newspaper said requirements for the new helmet state that it must provide 35 percent more protection than the current equipment.
In a Jan. 14 e-mail from Margaret Roth, a spokeswoman for Program Executive Office Soldier the Army's acquisition agency at Fort Belvoir, Va. officials for the ECH program said: [UHMW PE] has the potential to provide the Army and Marine Corps an advanced thermoplastic material that can provide soldiers and Marines with increased levels of protection against small arms and fragmentation threats, compared with the ACH.
Also, new technology has made it possible to manufacture production-scale quantities of helmets using ultrahigh-molecular-weight materials, at an affordable cost. Before, they could only be produced in small quantities and at high cost, the officials said.
According to Pasagian, the failure of the prototype ECH means that Kevlar or some sort of Kevlar blended with other materials could be used in the final version.
The use of blended and/or dissimilar material is common in the personal protective equipment environment, and is encouraged if performance increases are realized and the Marines' and soldiers' requirements are met, he said.
Marine Corps Times reported that the services have asked industry and academic institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., for suggestions on ways to improve the overall shape and fit of the helmet.
Copyright 2010 Crain Communications Inc. All Rights Reserved.