October 15, 2012
Credit: Credit: Defense-Update
David Eshel Tel Aviv
Armoring light combat vehicles has always been a compromise, as the weight allowed for the armor could never provide adequate protection against all threats. The massive U.S. mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle program was only an episode in the evolution of armored mobility. Future combat vehicles need to maintain a good balance between mobility, protection, size and weight—and all that at an affordable cost.
Armed forces have learned a lot in the past 20 years. Operational tempos have been high, and the types of conflict varied: some involving high-intensity warfare, others hybrid engagements employing anything from makeshift improvised roadside explosives (IEDs) and advanced anti-armor missiles, to massive suicidal attacks delivering truckloads of standard explosives. Through an evolutionary process, combat vehicles have adopted measures protecting their occupants from these threats.
But protection is not merely the armor plating, keeping one away from the hail of shrapnel and debris. It includes pre-empting attacks from rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), by disrupting their ability to deliver their lethal injection of plasma jet to penetrate the outer armor. Protection also addresses the tremendous blast propagated by the explosion. The shockwave transferred through the vehicle's structure has devastating effect on passengers' skeletons, smashing the soft brain tissue against the skull, causing severe internal injury and often death.
The new breed of armored vehicles reflects a balanced protection approach, providing shielding sufficient to defeat small arms and IEDs as part of the basic armor. Their structures are fitted with attachments designed to mount additional protection modules, known as B-kits, to meet higher threat levels, and applique, or C-kits, designed to address specific threats such as RPGs and explosively formed projectiles.
Structural elements made of armor-grade materials are often used in modern vehicles, underpinning the vehicle's frame. Traditionally, vehicle armor has been manufactured of high-hardness steel (HHS), which has recently improved with the introduction of the ATI-500-MIL standard. While offering a reasonable protection level and multi-hit resilience, HHS is also the heaviest solution and an all-steel solution is impractical for light vehicles.
Researchers are seeking alternative materials for ballistic protection that will match the ballistic properties of steel with considerably lower weight. Lower-density ceramic materials were the first step that enabled designers to achieve lighter protection. The latest composites—particularly, recently introduced nano-composites—offer new opportunities to increase ballistic protection while reducing weight, meeting design goals at affordable cost.
According to German armor manufacturer IBD Deisenroth Engineering, adding nano-ceramic backplates to an add-on armor module reduces the module's weight by 47%. According to IBD, a nano-composite ballistic protection module meeting Standard Agreement (Stanag) 34569 Level 3 threat would weigh only 32 kg (70 lb.), compared to 160 kg for a steel module with the same performance level. The company designed a complete nano-material-based protection suite for the MPV 4X4 vehicle from Iveco, reflecting an optimization process balancing protection level, weight and costs. The MPV system comprises nano-ceramic doors, nano-steel side armor and nano-composite curved counter-IED elements fabricated from advanced “flexible nano-composites.”