Cpl. Daniel M. Greenwald, an assaultman attached to F Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 5, holds up the Kevlar helmet that saved his life after he was shot in the head by an insurgent sniper. (Marine Corps)
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MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. — The Marine Corps and Army are pushing forward with a plan to roll out a new, tougher battlefield helmet, but will keep existing padding inside despite criticism over safety and comfort.
The development of a new Enhanced Combat Helmet has been identified as high-priority, meaning manufacturers will be pressured to deliver prototypes for testing within 30 days of a contract being awarded. No timeline for fielding has been released, but a contract competition is expected to be launched by the end of April.
The services are working together in a "critical and fast-moving effort," said Lt. Col. A.J. Pasagian, program manager for Infantry Combat Equipment at Marine Corps Systems Command.
"Whether it's an alloy or another material, we're looking at it," Pasagian said. "This is one of those things that you pull all-nighters for. We're working very hard to increase protection levels."
In late 2007, Commandant Gen. James Conway said finding a new helmet that can stop a 7.62mm round — the caliber of ammunition used in the AK47 assault rifle favored by insurgents — is a top priority. He reiterated that desire in January, telling reporters that officials were "on the verge of being able to give our Marines a helmet that will stop 7.62."
Since then, the Army's Program Executive Office Soldier has signed on to the project, and the services have begun to fine-tune the requirements. Pasagian said it may be "premature at this time to say exactly the nature of the threat rounds" the new helmet could stop, but an advertisement released to industry this month said it must offer at least 35 percent more protection against fragmentation and handgun and small-arms fire.
The new helmet also will use the shape of the existing Army helmet. Stopping a 7.62mm round, however, is not listed specifically as a requirement.
No more Kevlar?
Development of a new helmet means that for the first time in a generation, the military may not use current ballistic fibers such as Kevlar, the primary material for U.S. military helmets since at least 1983, when the Personal Armor System for Ground Troops helmet was fielded to Marines and soldiers.
Industry experts believe a beefier helmet made of existing kinds of Kevlar would be too heavy for troops. It's more likely it will be made of a stronger, lighter plastic-like material that would allow the services to field tougher helmets without increasing weight.
The project also means that Marines and soldiers may have the same kind of head protection — a common practice until a few years ago, when the Army adopted the Advanced Combat Helmet in 2002 and the Corps followed suit about a year later with the Lightweight Helmet.
At the time, Marine officials tested an early variant of the ACH known as the Modular Integrated Communications Helmet, but decided the Lightweight Helmet was better because it weighed about the same amount as the ACH (roughly 3.1 pounds for a medium-size helmet), but offered increased coverage near the ears and at the back of the head.
"Both the Lightweight Helmet and the MICH were comfortable and higher-rated than the PASGT, but the lightweight helmet was higher-rated than the MICH," said then-Maj. Stuart Muladore, who led the helmet research team at the time. "As it boiled down, it was still the helmet of choice for us."
With the upcoming ECH, however, the Corps has decided to go with the existing shape of the Army's ACH, even after saying in earlier advertisements to industry that it was also considering other options. Marine officials did not explain the rationale, other than to say the Corps "has reviewed all relevant factors."
PEO Soldier officials based at Fort Belvoir, Va., referred most questions to SysCom, saying it continues to have the lead on the project. The Army expects to conduct "rapid acquisition" of the new helmet once a design is selected, PEO Soldier spokeswoman Debi Dawson said.
Officials with DuPont, the maker of Kevlar, did not respond to requests for an interview.
The Corps and Army also have elected to use existing pad-based suspension systems, which have prompted complaints in the past for being too rigid and a cause of frequent headaches for some troops. Pasagian said that "given the urgent nature of the ECH," it is necessary to install the existing pads in the new helmets.
However, the Corps also is in the process of polling Marines on the strengths and weaknesses of the pad-based suspension system, made by Team Wendy LLC of Cleveland.
In a survey announced in Marine administrative message 106/09, officials ask 30 questions aimed at assessing how popular the pads are, how comfortable they are perceived to be and how easily they are assembled. The survey — which can be completed through May 20 — was created to solicit feedback that will be used to improve the suspension system of the existing Marine helmet, which could remain in use for at least another year.
The Corps also is working to develop a new helmet suspension system that would use a combination of webbing and pads to create additional protection and comfort.
"There are some pretty promising technologies that don't just limit themselves to helmet pads," Pasagian said. "What you're looking for is some standoff distance between the head and the actual suspension system itself, that mitigates against blunt force trauma."
That will be encouraging news for troops in war zones, many of whom continue to use alternative helmet pads made by Oregon Aero, which have been purchased and supplied by grassroots organizations such as Operation Helmet, which says the pads they supply are just as safe, but more comfortable. In 2007, a blog called "My Helmet Pads Suck" was started to cover gripes with the suspension system, purportedly by a service member who had seen combat action. It has since gone dormant.
Dr. Robert Meaders, a former Navy flight surgeon and founder of Operation Helmet, said his organization has supplied more than 42,000 free sets of pads to U.S. troops in war zones, with requests coming from everyone — from junior soldiers to a Marine colonel. The Corps banned the use of nonissued protective equipment in April 2007, but Meaders said he continues to receive requests.
In December, SysCom also responded to criticism that the Team Wendy pads burn more easily than other brands. Marine officials said the tests they conducted on the pad mirrored conditions in an improvised explosive device blast closely and showed their pads to be the most reliable.
"We are doing everything we can to ensure the safety of our Marines and sailors by providing them with the best and most effective force protection equipment," Pasagian said at the time. "Their preservation through better and more capable equipment has been, and will always be, the highest priority of the Marine Corps Systems Command."
The Corps and Army are awaiting results from data-collection sensors they placed in two units' worth of helmets sent with troops to Iraq and Afghanistan last year. The sensors record blast waves and other traumatic events, and are expected to return with the units this spring.
The Corps is considering whether to field the sensors more widely, but must first establish a baseline for what explosions, accidents and other incidents can do to the brain, Pasagian said. Everything from whether a service member is wearing night vision goggles at the time of a blast to whether an explosion occurred indoors can impact how the results are recorded, he said.