Got milk? If so, chances are your milk jug is made of the same basic polymer that—thanks in part to research initiated at nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG)— has delivered breakthrough levels of ballistic helmet protection for Soldiers.
When Kevlar® was first introduced to ballistic helmets in the early 1980s it was truly revolutionary. Kevlar is a synthetic polymer that replaced steel in Army helmets. Kevlar can resist penetration from fragments and bullets at a very low material density of 1.4 g/cc, compared to steel’s density of 7.3 g/cc. This allowed the U.S. to deliver much higher helmet protection at the same or less weight than the classic M1 “steel pot” helmet used in WW2, Korea, and Vietnam.
While Kevlar® and aramid polymer fibers still remain significant ballistic materials to this day, the goal of Army research is to make even the best technology obsolete so our Soldiers always have decisive advantage over an adversary.
In 2003, the Army Research Laboratory began exploring novel ways to process a special version of polyethylene—known as ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE). This research ultimately led to breakthrough levels of head protection, including the first-ever ballistic helmet with a specified small arms protection capability: the Enhanced Combat Helmet (ECH).
The Army Research Laboratory (ARL) and Natick’s Soldier Center are part of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM), which is placed under the Army Futures Command. ARL is the Army’s sole foundational research laboratory focused on cutting-edge scientific discovery, technological innovation, and transition of knowledge products that offer incredible potential to improve the Army’s chances of surviving and winning any future conflicts.
As part of DEVCOM, ARL teamed with Soldier Center—as well as PEO SOLDIER, Army ManTech and Office of the Secretary of Defense ManTech, and industry—to take research from the lab bench and put it onto the heads of Soldiers.
The result? Every new helmet for U.S. Army, Marines , and Special Operations Forces now uses variants of manufacturing science and technology initiated by the Army Research Laboratory.
And it all started at APG, right here in our own backyard.
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Variations of the M1917, also known as the “M1 Steel Pot” or “Kelly” helmet was in use from 1941 to 1980. Manganese steel, known as “Hadfield” steel, was chosen for its toughness and strength. DuPont’s invention of Kevlar revolutionized U.S. helmets. A synthetic aramid polymer displaced steel as the ballistic material.
How do Soldiers protect themselves? The goal of head protection is to reduce the risk of injury to the skull and brain. Pads dissipate and spread impact force over a larger area. Shell protects against low-velocity blunt impact and high speed (ballistic) impacts from fragments and bullets.