Sunday, January 08, 2006

Armor is making a comeback

15th C Gothic cuirassThe Pentagon believes that more upper body armor could have saved most of the Marines who died of upper body wounds in Iraq (Pentagon Study Links Fatalities to Light Armor, New York Times, 7 Jan 2006).

Surprisingly, we may be returning to an era of armored warriors. Most US troops in Iraq already wear ceramic plates to protect their chest and back. When troops started hanging their crotch protectors under their arms, the Army shipped out plates to protect their sides and shoulders.

The invention of the gun seemed to make armor obsolete: ballistic chemistry had triumphed over materials science. However, materials chemistry has been advancing rapidly (Kevlar, ceramics), and we can expect nanotechnology to accelerate the pace. While bullets are no doubt being redesigned to penetrate body shields, I expect that personal armor will become more widespread. We’ll also increasingly see it in non-military applications – some bull riders already wear protective vests, race car drivers will start wearing armor, and there may eventually be requirement for kids on bikes.

The current ceramic or Kevlar plates seem more like Japanese armor than the moulded suits worn by Medieval knights. As technology improves, we’ll see more rounded shapes. The Star Wars design team was prescient; the Imperial Trooper armor, particularly the helmets, seems inspired by the shapes of samurai armor. The DARPA exoskeleton armor looks uncannily like something out of the movies.

As the US Army adopts armor, old battle tactics re-emerge. At Crecy and Agincourt, the largely unarmed English archers defeated heavily armored French knights. While arrows may not have penetrated the knights’ armor at long range, the horses weren’t as well protected. An unhorsed knight floundering in the mud was at the mercy of bare-legged English soldiers. The US is learning all about asymmetric warfare