Military Body Armor Undergoes Makeover in Orange County

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Today marks the fifth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq. KPCC is examining various aspects of the war and Orange County Reporter Susan Valot zeroes in on the next generation of military body armor, which is taking root in Southern California.

[Crowd cheers]

Susan Valot: More than 100 California National Guard soldiers earlier this month streamed off a commercial jetliner at the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base. The entire group made it home safely after several months of protecting high-level judges and political leaders in Baghdad. You could argue that one reason they made it home alive is their body armor. Staff Sergeant Steve Holland says it's crucial.

Steve Holland: I've seen it save lives, so I'm happy with it.

Valot: Colonel Dave Baldwin is the commander of the California National Guard's 40th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. He knows his body armor – all 20 pounds of it.

Dave Baldwin: Our current body armor is relatively heavy. It's relatively bulky. It does offer good ballistic protection against both small arms, so up to rifle fire, as well as some blast protection.

Valot: But it's a bit clunky to move around in. And it's hot – especially during an Iraqi summer, when 120-degree days are the norm.

Joel Moskowitz: If you're over there in the Middle East and you're really out more than 15 or 20 minutes, you might as well be in a sauna.

Valot: That's Joel Moskowitz. He's the CEO of Ceradyne, a Costa Mesa company that's supplied ceramic body armor to the military since the 1990s. The ceramic inserts with a polymer backing are about a third of the weight of old steel body armor. They can stop machine gun fire, including AK-47s. Moskowitz says the company's waiting to hear whether it'll get the military contract for the next generation of body armor.

Moskowitz: The future product actually looks very similar, except it will be designed to stop a much more lethal threat, which is anticipated to be in the field, and by some accounts, is actually in the field, by the terrorists and insurgents.

Valot: But Moskowitz won't go into details about what that threat is. He says the future holds other changes for body armor, too.

Moskowitz: We'd like to do things that make the armor a bit more comfortable, that might allow some air between the armor plate and the soldier's uniform for cooling. We'd like to do things where we'd have additional coverage in different parts of the body, still always keeping weight. Weight is terribly important.

Valot: ... along with mobility – and, of course, durability. Researchers at UC Irvine are testing that durability, using machines like this thermal imager, which sounds like a flash bulb going off. It creates an image of internal damage or defects that can't be seen with the eye. This is part of UC Irvine's new Center for Advanced Monitoring and Damage Inspection. The U.S. Army's funding it with five-and-a-half-million dollars over the next five years. Engineering professor Maria Feng is in charge. She stands in the new lab amid a sea of brown cardboard boxes and stacks of gray armor plates.

Maria Feng: Some are, like, brand-new samples, with the new design. We need to check them, if there are manufacturing defects. And some are brand-new samples. We will drop it, or we apply some impact to cause damage. Then we detect the damage.

Valot: Feng says they're looking at crack patterns to see if they weaken the armor's ability to stop bullets and shrapnel.

Feng: Even a tiny damage could affect significantly the ballistic performance.

Valot: Feng says right now, there's no way to tell in the field if body armor has been damaged. The armor plates are covered with fabric. Soldiers can see bullet holes, but not small cracks. To find them, they have to send the armor back for X-rays. Feng says that's where the new lab comes in. It has two purposes.

Feng: One is to help them to improve the design of body armor and vehicle armors. And secondly, is to develop a portable sensor technology for the soldiers to use to check the integrity in real time, the integrity of the armors in real time.

Valot: Feng says the tough part is coming up with sensors that'll work if they've been hit or knocked around. She's testing fiber optic sensors similar to ones she's installed inside some Orange County bridges. They can detect quake damage you can't see from the outside. They might work in body armor, too. UCI engineer Maria Feng is confident, with a little time, she'll find the technology that'll hit the target.