UK MoD scientists develop upgraded body armour for troops in Afghanistan


The British Army is shortly introducing next generation body armour for use in Afghanistan. The British Ministry of Defence says the Osprey Mark 4 will be worn by the soldiers of 16 Air Assault Brigade who are due to deploy to Afghanistan in October.

“It offers troops better-fitting and newly-upgraded armour, protecting them as they work and fight,” the MoD said in a statement. Service personnel working outside the main bases in Afghanistan are to wear Osprey body armour, which is made up of a vest-like outer cover, a soft ballistic filler to stop fragments from bullets and explosions, and a hard protective plate that protects their vital organs.

Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Tresidder, the officer in charge of defence clothing, said of the Osprey armour: “Troops accept that it weighs a ton. But they appreciate that it gives them protection they’ve never had before.” The body armour includes improved rubber mouldings on the shoulders, designed to prevent heavy rucksacks and weapons from slipping. There are elastic draw-cords on the detachable ammunition pouches, giving troops a more accessible alternative to velcro.

And the protective breast plate is now carried in a pocket inside the armoured vest, making it less bulky and obstructive to movement, the MoD said. Also, the inside of the vest has a new ribbed material lining to improve breathability in the harsh Afghan climate. Osprey is a modular system made up of different components, which can be attached to loops on the outer covering.

The latest model has more loops, allowing troops to personalise their armour to suit their role by attaching their own choice of a range of 23 detachable pockets or pouches. A new commander’s pouch can be attached to the breast, giving soldiers easy access to such things as a notebook, pen and torch. The component pouches are designed to carry everything from bullets to water bottles and include new elastic draw-cord ammunition pouches and an improved first-aid kit.

The kit will be available in the new-look Multi-Terrain Pattern camouflage now being worn by troops in theatre.

Alan Hepper from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) was involved in developing the latest Osprey armour: “The whole design – performance of the plate and filler, the shape of the cover, they’re all based on the threat the guys are facing, what’s actually being thrown at them,” said Alan. But soldiers must be able to do their job while wearing the armour, in temperatures of up to 50 degrees Celsius during the summer in Afghanistan: “The design is a compromise of what the guys need and their proximity to medical treatment,” Alan adds. “It’s the best technical solution.”

Teams of Dstl scientists regularly visit theatre to talk to the troops, getting feedback on the equipment’s performance while it is still fresh in the soldiers’ minds. Feedback from soldiers included wanting the option to position the detachable pouches to their sides, to make it more comfortable when lying on their stomachs. Some also said that the bulky ceramic breast plates worn on the front of the vest got in the way when they were trying to work. The backs of helmets would also bump against the top of the rear of the armoured vest.

Although making the armour more comfortable is important, the priority is providing the best possible protection from the specific threats soldiers face: “All armour worn during fatal incidents is examined as part of the police investigation into the death,” said Alan, explaining that all deaths in service are treated as murder investigations by a coroner in the UK. “Any lessons learned are relayed back to us [Dstl] immediately.” Body armour from non-fatal incidents is also sent straight to Dstl, so any changes made by the soldier wearing it can be examined: “If we see that someone’s modified their body armour we’ll try to understand why, and what the logic was behind that,” said Alan. “The UK is the only place to do this to this level. We actually learn from what’s going on.”

The body armour also underwent extensive testing in the Dstl laboratories, to make sure its performance was up to scratch. Bullets were fired at the ceramic plates and fragments flung at the soft ballistic layer of the armour to test its effectiveness. People run laps, shovel dirt and perform other vigorous tasks in 40-degree heat and high humidity, simulating how soldiers move while on operations, to test its usability. The idea is to make things as comfortable as possible for soldiers wearing heavy kit in the hot Afghan climate: “The shape and size of those plates is not just based upon engineering judgement,” added Alan. “What medics see, what they know about the body and the way it gets injured, that information gets fed back from the Surgeon General’s department in the Defence Medical Services.
“The different components of the armour mean we can be agile in the way that we develop it. When we identify improvements they are fed in straight away. As a result, we are now on our seventh design in five years. That’s why no one has better body armour than the UK.”

The Osprey body armour is one part of the UK3000 ‘black bag’ of kit given to all soldiers deploying on operations, which contains such items as anti-microbial underpants, designed to be worn for days at a time, and flame-resistant clothing for those working inside vehicles. There is also combat eye protection, glasses and goggles, a fast-drying travel towel and a portable hydration system, known as CamelBak: “It recognises the conditions they are working in, such as the heat and the austere bases,” said Lt Col Tresidder. “They get everything from pants to boots.”

Pic: Osprey body armour. note the new Multi Terrain Pattern camouflage uniform on the right.