Looking to the Horizon; Maritime Security and Body Armour Developments.
Written by Joshua Nash, on behalf of SafeGuard Armour
When asked to describe a pirate, most people will conjure up one of two images; the romanticised pirates of the past, living a carefree life in tropical paradises and boarding ships at the point of a sword, or the frightening modern pirates of Somalia. In reality, pirates both past and present are vicious, opportunistic, and a major threat to international shipping. International shipping carries over 80% of the World’s trade, and it’s estimated that the cost to the international community of Somali based piracy alone was $6bn in 2012.
Of course, Somalia isn’t the only source of piracy, and in recent years attacks in South East Asia and off the coasts of South America have skyrocketed; nearly 60% of all maritime piracy now occurs in South East Asia. This is based only on recorded data, with many attacks going unreported particularly in ‘new piracy’ areas like South East Asia, meaning the real cost of piracy can’t be fully assessed. It has been suggested that both suspicious activity and outright attacks are under-reported by the owners of vessels, who do not wish to spread fear and panic.
For Maritime Security, protecting craft of any size or cargo is a challenge in the face of widespread piracy. Vigilance and preparation are key for Maritime Security Operatives (MSOs), but it is not always possible to predict what circumstances an MSO will find him or herself in. This presents a certain problem in choosing the correct body armour, an essential piece of equipment. However, current trends in research and manufacture will directly benefit Maritime Security whether intentionally or not. Research and development of body armour can largely be split along two lines; research into current materials, and research into new materials. Both of those areas will impact upon the unique situation of the MSO.
The most common problem facing body armour is its weight and restrictive nature. While modern body armour is extremely thin and lightweight, it still increases the temperature of the wearer. Some manufacturers incorporate temperature regulating technologies into body armour to combat this problem. The intense heat and humidity faced by many MSOs would be challenging enough without the added body armour, and technologies that can help draw moisture away from the body are incredibly beneficial. There has been a notable trend in adding additional technologies into body armour to help make it cooler and increase airflow. For example, there are a number of methods available that involve fans that directly blow air underneath the armour, but these are far from practical. There are more useful products available that can be worn underneath armour, such as the CTAV from Cortac, which utilises a bumped and ridged surface to naturally stimulate airflow, as well adding some padding and comfort for the wearer. This and other products similar to it have the added benefit of improving the weight distribution of the body armour, better spreading the weight across the body.
Other products have focussed on different issues, providing body armour with better UV protection and odour control for example. Another added benefit of many of these products is comfort, utilising softer materials to make body armour less difficult to wear for extended periods. One surprising issue for many comes from the bulletproof materials themselves; it’s very seldom considered, but some people are allergic to Kevlar. This is a nightmare scenario for those who need body armour to protect themselves, but by utilising these additional products the effects can be negated. Some improvements to body armour have Maritime Security specifically in mind; many manufacturers now offer floatation devices and buoyancy aids as part of body armour, meaning that even if an MSO finds him or herself overboard, their body armour will again protect them.
The main focus of research for the makers of body armour and bullet resistant materials is in making their products lighter and thinner. This may not have Maritime Security in mind specifically, but the benefits can be felt by MSOs. By making the ballistic plates used in bullet proof vests lighter, protection can be increased. This amounts to vests that weigh the same, but can offer increased protection than before. The main benefit of lighter and thinner plates however is in improving comfort for the wearer. Bullet proof vests can be comfortably worn for long periods at lower levels of protection, and yet making them as light as possible will make them easier to wear for extended periods. Temperature is the main concern in making body armour lighter and thinner, and not simply because of the effects on the wearer. Kevlar and other ballistic resistant materials can have their effectiveness reduced when submerged in water. This is obviously a concern for those working in Maritime professions. However, even excessive perspiration can build up enough moisture to damage a bullet proof vest and cause it to degrade. Adding waterproofing can help with both of these issues dramatically, and is already offered by most manufacturers. Nevertheless, making the materials lighter will help improve their lifespan, particularly when used in conjunction with temperature regulating technologies.
Bullet proof vests consist of multiple parts, with the ballistic protection usually inserted into the vest that actually supports it. Improving the breathability of the carrier- the vest itself- is not a priority for many manufacturers, and only a handful offer thinner carriers or temperature regulating technologies included with them. However, the makers of the ballistic plates that go into the carrier are striving to make lighter and thinner materials. DuPont, the manufacturers of Kevlar, devote much of their research into making Kevlar thinner by using fewer layers in its manufacture. Kevlar is used in the majority of bullet proof vests, and making it thinner and lighter will dramatically improve the protection and wearability of vests. However, for increased protection body armour can utilise plates made of ceramic, steel and titanium. These ‘hard armours’ are naturally much heavier and bulkier than their ‘soft’ counterparts, and efforts have been made to make these heavy armours stronger, which will allow them to be thinner. This is beneficial for MSOs who expect to face high calibre or even armour piercing rounds during their operation, who cannot afford to sacrifice protection for comfort and manoeuvrability.
One of the goals of this research into making armour lighter and thinner is creating armour that can protect against multiple threats without being additionally heavy or bulky. Multi-threat armours are already widely available, but by creating thinner and lighter plates, they can offer increased protection against a wider variety of threats. This is of particular significance to Maritime Security, who have to be protected against any and all weapons. MSOs may deal with long and short range threats, have to protect against small arms and high calibre weapons, but also be equipped to deal with a close quarters threat- in 75% of all attacks the vessel in question was boarded, and so MSOs need to be prepared and protected against every eventuality. Having body armour that assures protection in every situation will remove one of the dangers from a very dangerous profession, and allow MSOs to operate confidently and to the best of their ability.
The other main area of research and development for body armour is in finding new materials that possess the qualities necessary for bullet proof vests. The inspiration for this comes from many places, but has recently drawn on natural armours. Technology that mimics nature, known as biomimetics, is nothing new; medieval chainmail, scaled armour and lobstered gauntlets all took their inspiration from armour found in the natural world. However, researchers have drawn on these developments and have utilised modern technology to better understand the science behind natural armour. 3D printing, for example, allows researchers to create large scale models of fish scales that can be subjected to a wider variety of tests. This has led to innovations in modern body armour and the advent of lightweight scaled armour. Another interesting development also comes from nature, as Nanocellulose has been shown to have promising applications. Nanocellulose comes from wood pulp, and can be made into lightweight yet incredibly strong materials that would suit body armour perfectly. Similarly, Graphene made from carbon tubes has been shown to have an excellent strength-to-weight ratio and could also be utilised as extremely lightweight body armour. These areas of research have amazing potential for bullet proof vests, and particularly for Maritime Security. However, these are not yet at the mass-production scale, and are still very much in development. There are also concerns over the environmental impact of using wood pulp for example.
Another exciting area of research is in liquid armour, which boasts an even stronger protection than the aforementioned materials. A Polish company called Moratex has developed a liquid suitable for body armour called Shear-Thickening Fluid (STF). Instead of acting like most Newtonian fluids, like water, STF is a non-Newtonian fluid that hardens upon impact, dispersing energy throughout the liquid. This has the effect of drastically slowing a projectile until it is stopped completely, just as Kevlar does, yet with a fraction of the weight. One of its benefits over traditional materials is its low indentation upon impact. When a bullet strikes a Kevlar bullet proof vest, it is slowed down by the tight weave of strong yet flexible fibres. However, there may still be some indentation caused by the bullet that can cause bruising and injury to the wearer. It is possible to buy trauma plates that are worn behind the layers of ballistic materials to reduce this indentation. However, the company behind STF claim to have removed this threat 100%, claiming that with liquid armour there can be no damage to the sternum. This liquid armour is very light and would make for extremely lightweight ballistic vests. Of course, like the other ‘future materials’, this is still very much in the early stages of development, and traditional Kevlar vests are still the most useful equipment for MSOs.
There has been a focus in the past several years on accurately reporting piracy. With international shipping such an important part of the world’s economy, having precise data on the range and nature of piracy is vital. It is difficult to quantify however as even when pirate attacks are reported, they may not always be judged accurately. There are also a number of reasons why piracy may go unreported; unsuccessful attacks may not be deemed worthy of report, and companies may be unwilling to report any attacks for fear of creating panic among investors for example. This means that even where statistics report decreasing numbers of attacks in certain areas, it is important for MSOs to remain vigilant and prepared.
Body armour is of course an essential part of this, as the safety of MSOs is paramount. As we have seen, operating conditions can be uncomfortable at best, and wearing a bullet proof vest can exacerbate that. However, by utilising additional technologies designed for high temperatures for example, manufacturers have started to offer wider ranges of vests that will make Maritime Security at least slightly safer. Research into making armour thinner and lighter is another priority for manufacturers that directly benefits MSOs, and developing new materials that can be made into extremely lightweight bullet proof vests is an exciting prospect for Maritime Security. Protection is paramount, and should never be sacrificed purely for comfort. However, in the dangerous and inhospitable environments MSOs may find themselves in, having protection that does not diminish comfort is of great importance, and the body armour industry is starting to take this onboard.
For more on SafeGuard Armour visit their website: www.safeguardarmour.co.uk
For more on SafeGuard Clothing, offering high quality DuPont Kevlar Body Armour at affordable prices, visit: www.safeguardclothing.co.uk.
This article was originally posted in the SecurityNewsDesk Newspaper, Issue 14.