Army uses 'Xena: Warrior Princess' as inspiration for new body armor for women
Making body armor that better fits the bodies of female troops is a considerable engineering challenge. The Army is forging ahead with improvements after a decade of women serving on the front lines.
It is a considerable engineering challenge to make body armor that better fits the bodies of female troops, US military officials acknowledge, and such armor may be years in the making.
In the meantime, Army engineers are forging ahead with improvements that they hope will provide much-needed changes after a decade of women serving on the front lines of an unpredictable battlefield.
Much of the impetus to change the body armor came in 2009, when the female soldiers of the storied 101st Airborne Division deployed to war and had some concerns about the gear they had to use on a daily basis.
‚ÄúIt rubbed on the hips, and the vests were too long in the front, so that when you had female soldiers climbing stairs or climbing up a hill or a tree, or sitting for a long time in a vehicle, that would create pressure points that in some instances could impact blood flow and cause some discomfort,‚ÄĚ says Lt. Col. Frank Lozano, who helps develop female body armor.
Ill-fitting body armor is ‚Äúmore than a matter of comfort,‚ÄĚ according to a subsequent US Army study. ‚ÄúIt affects combat effectiveness.‚ÄĚ
The study found that the poor fit of the body armor on female soldiers ‚Äúmade it difficult for [them] to properly aim their weapons and enter or exit vehicles.‚ÄĚ
And so the Army set about to see what it could do to improve the fit of body armor for women. ‚ÄúIt became clear to us that there was a difference in torso length,‚ÄĚ says Lozano, who is the product manager for the Army‚Äôs soldier protective-equipment program. ‚ÄúThe other point that we realized is that there is a significant difference in shoulder width. I read this data, and it seems so obvious.‚ÄĚ
The most important goal is to be able to ‚Äúspread out the energy‚ÄĚ when a bullet hits the body armor plates, says Douglas Graham, a spokesman for the Army‚Äôs Office of Soldier Protection and Individual Equipment.
‚ÄúSome people would like to eventually make plates so it‚Äôs like ‚ÄėXena: Warrior Princess‚Äô and conforms to the shape‚ÄĚ of female soldiers, he adds.
Yet there are engineering challenges. The more curves the plates have, the heavier they get. It also creates potential weaknesses in the armor, like creasing a paper, Lozano explains.
‚ÄúThere are some complex curvatures that come into play with female hard-armor plates,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúI could make female hard armor, but it would be twice as heavy.‚ÄĚ As a result, some of the Army‚Äôs developmental efforts involve ‚Äúunique chemical designs‚ÄĚ to create plates that are lighter and conform to different body shapes.
Currently, female soldiers have a choice of 11 male body-armor sizes.
Now, the Army is testing eight additional sizes made specifically for women, with, among other changes, more-narrow shoulders and ‚Äúbra-shaped darting‚ÄĚ in the chest.
Some 100 women of the 101st Airborne Division, who will soon be headed to Afghanistan, are testing them and have given positive early feedback. ‚ÄúThey say, ‚ÄėI could wear this all day,‚Äô ‚ÄėI could run a marathon in this,‚Äô and ‚ÄėIt feels much lighter,‚Äô even though it really isn‚Äôt any lighter,‚ÄĚ Lozano says.
Now, he adds, the challenge will be finding the money, in the midst of robust calls for cuts in defense spending, to mass-produce them.