National Security Watch: Putting armor back in the Army
RICHMOND, Va.It used to be that a soldier's best friend was a rifle. But in America's current fight in Iraq, there is little question a soldier's best friends are a vest and helmet.
The age of armor has returned. The invention of gunpowder and the ability of projectiles to pierce metal rendered the ancient armies of armored knights or legionnaires obsolete. So for centuries soldiers wore little if any armor. But Iraq has proved to be a different kind of war.
In Iraq, the enemy is most often a remotely triggered roadside bomb, not an ambush by a guerrilla group. During an attack, there is often no enemy to shoot, just a blast that must be survived. And that means Kevlara 40-year-old bullet-resistant fiberis the soldiers' new best friend.
American soldiers wore Kevlar vests in the first Gulf War. But the protracted fight against the Iraqi insurgency has touched off a new level of demand for the fiber. Now in addition to Kevlar helmets and vests, many soldiers and marines are being outfitted with Kevlar shoulder pads, neck guards, and groin protectors. The more enterprising soldiers make Kevlar seat cushions for their humvees and stuff Kevlar blankets in the lining of their doors.
DuPont will not say precisely how much Kevlar it is producing, but last year it expanded its production capacity by 10 percent, and company officials say another expansion will boost capacity by another 10 percent next year.
A DuPont scientist discovered Kevlar in 1965 when she was trying to find a better version of DuPont's flame-resistant fiber Nomex. Kevlar and Nomex are chemical cousins; they are both aramids, a kind of nylon. (As a result, Kevlar provides some protection from heat. It is able to withstand 800 degrees Fahrenheit, at least for a few seconds.)
Today, Kevlar comes into the DuPont factory in Richmond as a yellow powder. There it is mixed with a solvent, drenched in sulfuric acid, and then spun into an endlessly long golden thread. When it comes off the production line, the thread can be cut by a pair of scissors. But the fiber is so strong the scissors dull after a few snips, meaning plant workers always need to keep sharpeners handy.
"Pound for pound, Kevlar is five times stronger than steel," says William Harrison, a DuPont spokesman. "I wouldn't suggest flossing with it."
DuPont does not make the bullet-resistant vests or helmets itself. The Kevlar leaves the factory not as vests or helmets or plates, but reels of thread. DuPont sells the thread to weavers, who use it to make loose weaves that stop bullets or tight weaves that stop knives. The Kevlar fabric is then sold to other companies that assemble it into vests or other uses.
In any military, the trade-off with armor is always between mobility and protection. DuPont officials believe that if they can continue to find ways to make their protective fibers lighter, the military will be able to armor a soldier's entire bodywithout creating the modern equivalent of a slow-moving and virtually immobile knight. The key question, says Allen Youngman, a retired major general and DuPont consultant, is "How will we take that next step to full-body armor without going back to the age of chivalry?"
The company has invested in a new fiber, called M5, that could become the successor to Kevlar. DuPont, through its affiliate Magellan Systems, has opened up a "pilot" manufacturing plant for M5. Alexa Dembek, a DuPont official, says M5 could prove to be lighter than Kevlar, but she cautions that the fiber is still far from being ready for the military or other uses.
"This is years off," she says. "But we have to do the work now."
Thus for the foreseeable future, Kevlar remains king. And as long as the insurgents continue to lay their bombs and Americans continue to patrol the Iraqi roads, demand for the fiber is sure to remain high.