Body armour

Hard body armour - meant to stop rifle bullets - played a minor role in both World Wars but came back during the 90's when Western deployments on the Balkans motivated the purchase of ceramics-based hard body armour to protect the torso against bullets. A fibre-based body armour (Dyneema stuff) was also used (by France).

The next push was certainly in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq when hard body armour became standard issue for soldiers who left the camps. It helped to keep the losses to snipers and riflemen low, but was soon overshadowed by the procurement of MRAP armoured vehicles - even hard body armour gives insufficient protection against blast.

Soft body armour was never meant to stop more than submachinegun bullets and appeared very late in WW2 and in the Korean War, then as semi-flexible vest with fibreglass plate inserts and later as Nylon fibre vest. Germany slept over the development till the 80's when fragmentation protection vests became almost a global standard for infantry.

I assume that many learn misleading lessons from the recent body armour history, though. The restricting effect of heavy hard body armour on agility and endurance of foot soldiers has been complained about by thousands of experts and users for years. Yet, there's another aspect that casts shadows on hard & heavy body armour: It's a compromise for a certain threat situation.

Hard body armour protects against rifle bullets and weaker missiles, and as such it's a promising choice for situations where this is a major problem.

Other situations might place a stronger emphasis on protection against burns.

Yet other situations might place a stronger emphasis on fragmentation effects.

A well-trained (and scarce!) infantryman won't be of much use if his arms and legs get perforated by fragments on every contact. There are many scenarios in which getting hit by 40-120mm HE fragmentation effects is more likely than getting shot by a rifle (torso hit).

Hard body armour for torso protection is most relevant when the soldiers is upright when hit - a couching soldier is more likely to get hit into the head than into the front or back of the torso. Improved coverage hard body armour (protecting the torso sides and the shoulders as well) is even more heavier and cumbersome than a usual one.

The promising and proven (as protection, not necessarily tactically) compromise of the time period 1995-2009 might be a terrible and poor compromise for conventional warfare with its more dominant indirect fires.

Similarly, MRAPs might be a poor compromise for conventional warfare - but at least we've got our old and adequate conventional warfare AFVs.

Do we have a good body armour compromise for conventional warfare?

Let's look at it; a little bit of Nomex and similar clothing for protection against burns.
A molded fibre helmet that protects against small fragments and usually also against pistol shots.
A fibre torso vest (including shoulder, neck and side protection) that protects against small fragments and in some models also against pistol and submachinegun bullets.
Protective goggles (light ballistic protection and laser protection), possibly also a ballistic face mask.
The ability to insert hard plates as protection against rifle bullets on special occasions.

Is that enough?

I've long held the suspicion that this isn't enough. I'd like to see at least experiments about full soft body armour against small fragments, with pistol bullet grade (=stronger fragments) protection for torso and head.

Covering arms and legs with ballistic fibre tissues (about 15 to 20 layers kevlar or equivalent) would be a similar burden as the addition of heavy plates into a vest. The arm and leg movement would have to move the additional weight of the armour - that's a problem especially with lower leg protection, just like heavy boots are quite tiring.
Nevertheless, it should be considered as standard for troops meant to be in range of enemy mortars in a conventional war.
We would certainly hear similar complaints about the burden as with the hard body armour, but it looks to me like an equally promising compromise between ballistic protection and agility/endurance. It's just meant of conventional war instead of peacekeeping and occupation warfare.

I've only seen one a full body fragmentation protection clothing so far; it was meant as spall and fire protection for AFV crews.

Finally, it should be mentioned that special boot soles can protect against small anti-personnel mines and bomblet duds. That's just another piece of equipment that should be available for occasional use.

edit: Inserted third photo. It shows a Russian (NII STALI "VITYAZ ensemble") level I ballistic protection set. with partial protection of arms and legs. I thought more of cloth-like protection coupled with the usual knee pads, though.

edit 2009-05-08: I found again a great source on Korean War body armour development - it also includes information on missile hit probability on different body parts at that time.
edit 2023; best I have now:


  1. Sven,

    You mentioned if there is anything addressing a fuller body armor. The US Naval Research Lab together with Oklahoma State University have worked on Quadguard body armor.

    See here:

    I also think that Raytheon with the purchase of Sarcos, an engineering firm is Utah is trying to eventually get their exoskeleton to be fully armored.

    Shoot me an email at objectiveforcewarrior@yahoo.com if you're interested in this project and I can send you a disk of the Sarcos project.

  2. A bulletproof exoskeleton armour, vehicle crewman/gunner's extrimitie armor and similar EOD armour isn't exactly what I mean.

    I was thinking about clothes with integral fragmentation protection comparable to the 90's fragmentation protection vests.

    The different German IdZ future infantry program develops new multifunctional clothes; standard and chemical protection versions. They just don't have any fragmentation protection.

    It's too heavy to have both bullet and frag protection, but conventional war might reveal that full frag protection is superior to partial bullet protection.

  3. Sven: I think you might be right about that. "Bulletproof" is difficult and vulnerable to new bullet designs and materials. Moreover, it's quite possible to "upgun" the infantryman with assault rifles that generate 2500 joules of energy at the muzzle.

    But increasing the penetration power of artillery and mine fragments is much harder to accomplish and body armor that concentrates on this threat may be effective for a longer period of time.

    There was some talk in the 80's of a woven Kevlar waistcoat that would protect the entire upper torso from fragments. This was to be worn under the "hard" vests.