Body armour development in South Africa comes under the spotlight


Du Pont Defence in collaboration with Bullet Proofing Technology (BPT) examined South African developments in body armour during a recent symposium in Pretoria, highlighting the capabilities of the local industry.

Allen Chimhandamba, Regional Segment Leader at Du Pont Protection Solutions, started off with an overview of some of the latest developments in body armour, including Tensylon polyethylene armour for lightweight helmets, plates, shields and vehicle armour, ceramics and other materials such as multi-axial fabrics. He said Du Pont has five million soldiers and law enforcement personnel protected by its Kevlar and other products, with customers in 50 countries around the world. In Africa, this includes South Africa, Angola and Nigeria.

Deon du Plessis, Managing Director, Bullet Proofing Technologies, looked at developments in hard armouring. He said it is important to know which threats to protect against and that one should look at bullet types rather than energy levels etc. In South Africa, 75% of illegal firearms are handguns, with the majority of these being .38 (23%) and 9 mm (20%) calibres. Shotguns are almost negligible in numerical terms along with hunting rifles. Assault rifles pose a big threat, with 5.56 mm calibre the most common (15% of illegally used firearms). AK-47s used to be more common but are not so anymore, with about 5% of illegal firearms being accounted for by the AK-47 series.

Of the 5.56 mm bullets, Du Plessis said the most dangerous type is the SS-109 lead bullet with a steel tip that is easily able to penetrate armour (the normal lead core struggles to penetrate a Kevlar helmet). The 7.62×39 mm AK-47 ammunition commonly used in South Africa has a mild steel core which gives it high penetration and is best stopped by steel, composite ceramic and only the very newest types of UHMWPE (ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene) armour.

Du Plessis explained that there are three main body armour concepts: standalone (the plate provides total protection); stop in plate (plates used in conjunction with soft armour behind the plate) and lightweight composite plates used to upgrade the protection level of soft armour jackets to protect against rifle attack.

Soft armour stops bullets by absorbing energy, while hard armour plates break up or stop bullets totally. Ceramic armour typically breaks bullets, with another material layered behind the ceramic to absorb energy. Until 1980, hard armour was typically armoured steel or even titanium and aluminium, but although effective and cost effective (R450-900 per plate), steel is heavy (2.8-8 kg per plate) and can’t stop armour piercing rounds at reasonable weights.

Composite armour (ceramic and fibrous materials bonded together) offer reasonable weight (1.7-2.8 kg per plate) but require advanced technology to produce, need to be handled with care and are more expensive (R900-1 800 per plate).

Fibrous composite armour offers low weight (.9-1.8 kg per plate), good multi-shot resistance and little spalling but are expensive (R2 000-3 500 per plate) and cannot stop armour piercing bullets. Du Plessis said new technologies are emerging such as boron carbide plates (which cost five times as much as other plates), nanomaterials, energy absorbing materials and new fibre types. Armour is also becoming more comfortable and flexible for better movement.

Du Plessis cautioned that body armour is the last line of defence and does not make the wearer a superman – when considering all angles, a bullet resistant jacket only protects 10% of a person. He added that body armour is unfortunately often not designed to be comfortable to wear, and this causes a lot of people to take it off prematurely.

Bullet Proofing Technologies is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of body armour plates, and a major supplier of vehicle armour and body armour plates. It has three business lines: body armour, vehicle armour and special armour. Vehicle armour accounts for 45% of the company’s turnover and usually comprises ceramics, GRP, polymers etc. for military vehicles, ships and aircraft. BPT completes 300-500 vehicle armour sets a year and 70 000 to 150 000 body armour plates a year. The company has made 1.3 million body armour plates to date. The company recently invested R15 million in polyethylene presses for the manufacture of composite armour.

Juanita Testa from Armscor gave an overview of ballistic standards enforcement in South Africa. She said Armscor provides quality assurance services to the Department of Defence and other entities such as the South African Police Service. Over the last 28 years Armscor has physically inspected and tested more than 100 000 bullet resistant vests for the South African National Defence Force, 10 000 for correctional services and 300 000 for the Police.

Armscor has four approved shooting ranges for ballistic testing, which are based at the companies Sirdicks, BPT, Ballistic Body Armour and Zebra Armour. When accepting armour, Armscor tests one item in a hundred.

Another Armscor representative, Jan Ferreira, Chief Armour Specialist, discussed the efforts Armscor is going to in developing a new ballistic armour component for the SANDF. Armscor was given this task in 2013 and has spent time and effort defining threats and carrying out testing. Ferreira said the biggest threats in Africa are 7.62×51, 7.62×39 and 7.62×54 mm rounds from FN FAL, AK-47 and PKM weapons as well as 5.56 mm rounds from M16s.

A major threat is fragments from explosives (RPGs, mortars etc.) as these travel extremely fast, often more than twice the speed of a rifle bullet, and go straight through most body armour, especially fibres. Armscor is still doing testing on explosive fragments and body armour concepts to counter them.

South Africa has a wide array of body armour specialists, including Rand Armour, Leo Garments, Zebra Armour, MOH-9 and Imperial Armour. They also offer suits and helmets for bomb-disposal teams and, in some cases, riot control shields and helmets with visors. Sirdicks, meanwhile, has manufactured armoured vests for the South African Police Service, SANDF and other customers – one of its products is an inflatable armoured jacket for the South African Navy – this can either inflate in water automatically or when a rip-cord is pulled. The inflatable system makes sure the person in the water floats chin-up to avoid drowning.