Ever since the advent of modern warfare, tactics – the art of organising and employing fighting forces on or near the battlefield – have been shaped by the functional ingredients of ‘firepower’, ‘protection’ and ‘mobility’, which, in turn, have remained in a perpetual state of competition with each other. The evolution of modern tactics shows that technological advances in any of these functions have led to complementary advances in others to neutralise the advantage.
It is surprising that despite all the empirical wisdom, the issue of protection of soldiers in terms of providing ‘body armour’ and helmets remained neglected, more so, when personnel casualties can decide the outcome of battles and soldiers are required to physically defend and capture tactical ground. Also, a battle casualty costs the State twice as much as a living soldier, apart from anguish to families and the public at large. As early as World War 1, which was horrendous in terms of casualties, it was concluded that up to 75 per cent of all battlefield injuries could have been prevented with the help of effective body armour and helmets.
For the last 50 years, body armour has been an essential part of a soldier’s equipment. I analyse the latest trends in modern body armour and correlate it with the experience of the Indian Army.
Trends in body armour – weight versus protection
Body armour and helmets have been around since the advent of the musket in the 16th century. Over time, the use of body armour and helmets declined because their weight hindered mobility. In the 20th century, the two World Wars were fought without any body armour. However, since 20 per cent of all battle injuries were to the head, fairly effective helmets evolved towards the end of World War 1.
Lack of body armour led to the caliber of the rifle reducing from 7.62 mm to 5.56 mm by 1980. With the advent of modern body armour in the last five decades, the 7.62 mm caliber bullet with steel core has also made a comeback.
It was the development of Kevlar, a synthetic fibre, in 1965 by Stephanie Kwolek that brought about a technological revolution in protection systems of the military. Commercially available since 1971, it has become the mainstay of personal protective equipment (PPE), with all modern body armour and helmets being made from synthetic fibres such as Kevlar, combined with either metal or ceramic plates known as trauma plates. Synthetic fibre resists/stops penetration of bullet/shrapnel and the metal/ceramic plates absorb the impact/trauma.
With focus on minimising casualties by maximising protection and the return of 7.62 mm steel core bullets, the body armour and helmets became heavier. The weight of bullet-proof jackets worn by US Army soldiers has doubled since mid-1980s when it was only four kg. Protection of other vital parts like groin, knees, elbows and face further increased the weight. Today, the PPE of a US soldier weighs 13-14 kg. This weight severely restricts the mobility and efficiency of the soldiers. In 2017, the Senate Standing Committee on Defence specifically examined the issue.
The negative aspects of the increased weight of PPE notwithstanding, it has proved to be a life saver in all conflicts. Based on World War 1 studies cited above, modern PPE reduces casualties by two-thirds.
Quest for lighter body armour
With protection overriding weight for nearly two decades, not only was the mobility and efficiency of the soldier impeded, but musculoskeletal injuries also increased by 10 times from 2003 to 2009. All modern militaries are now seized with the challenge of reducing the weight of PPE.
The first step was to design a PPE modular for different roles depending upon varying battle needs. In close combat, loss of mobility can result in higher casualties. Hence, lighter versions of ceramic/steel impact/trauma plates could be used and certain add-on protective equipment discarded.
Quest has also begun for lighter materials. Development of ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene, which derives its strength from long molecules, has offered a lighter option to prevent penetration of bullets and shrapnel. The strength of this material can be as high as 15 times that of steel. However, this does not safeguard against impact/trauma for which ceramic/steel plates are used.
New materials like boron carbide are being developed for making lighter ceramic plates. The use of nanotechnology, wherein materials are manipulated at a molecular/supra-molecular scale, can help produce lightweight body armour that is more like clothing. Another approach is to use emerging lightweight materials to integrate other items of equipment carried by soldiers into body armour.
Indian Army experience
The Indian Army was a late starter with regards to the adoption of PPE for soldiers. We continued to use World War 2 helmets until 1974 when fibre glass helmets were gradually introduced. These proved ineffective in anti-terrorist operations in Jammu and Kashmir. “An improvised low-cost solution, the ‘bulletproof patka’ helmet was designed by Major General V.K. Datta in the early 1990s, and is still the standard issue in counterinsurgency operations.”
The disadvantage is the 2.5 kg weight, limited protection from the top and no facilities for add-on equipment. It was only in 2018 that 1,58,000 Kevlar-based modern helmets costing Rs 170 crore were procured from Kanpur-based defence company, MKU. However, these too proved to be ineffective against AK-47 steel core bullets used by terrorists. To improve effectiveness, a ceramic plate was procured from another firm and used as an add-on. It was only last year that the process began to procure 1,00,000 modern helmets worth Rs 500 crore that can stop steel core bullets of AK-47.
The story of bullet proof jackets is no different. These were introduced in small numbers in the late 1990s, but proved to be heavy and short on protection. Even these were in short supply and could meet only 30-40 per cent of the requirement by the mid-2000s. Soldiers were reluctant to wear them because of the weight. As an Army Commander in 2007-2008, I had to set an example by wearing one of these jackets whenever I was with the troops to impress upon them that despite the heavy weight, the jacket was a lifesaver. In the last decade, energetic efforts have been made to meet the shortfall but modern body armour is just about beginning to be introduced.
The silver lining is that the DRDO and the private industry are now capable of developing and producing state-of-the-art PPE. Indian armed forces have the added advantage of phenomenal research carried out by modern militaries to strike a balance between protection and weight/mobility. The challenge is to refine our qualitative requirements and cater for the budget.
As per my estimate, the complete state-of-the-art mass production of PPE could cost approximately Rs 1 lakh to Rs 1.5 lakh per soldier. Ideally, all personnel must be equipped with PPE but for front line soldiers (approximately 50-60 per cent of the total personnel strength), it is inescapable. The Indian armed forces would require 0.8 to 1.4 million sets costing Rs 12,000 crore to Rs 20,000 crore. This itself dictates progressive introduction. Even the cost of equipping only combat arms – 50 per cent of the Indian Army – would be Rs 9,000 crore.
Modern-day PPE sets can reduce our battle casualties by two-thirds. In J&K, from 1990 to 2021, approximately 5,500 security personnel have been killed in action. A state-of-the-art PPE could have saved 70 per cent of these personnel. Nothing else can highlight the urgency of mass producing PPE better than this.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R), served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. He tweets @rwac48. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)