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Special Operations Forces Gear

The SOF community originally fielded a body armor system featuring a vest carrier with a soft armor insert and hard composite plates on the front and back. While SOF operators may have different protection level requirements than the larger services, the system concepts were similar enough to allow those services to later leverage off the early development efforts of the SOF community.

U.S. Army Special Forces during a patrol in Iraq. Both men are wearing the MICH/ACH helmet. The helmet is slightly smaller than the old helmet, but offers lighter weight, integral communications capability, and less intrusiveness when wearing body armor, among other qualities. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Mike Buytas.

Within the SOF community, Chan noted that although ballistic components have remained relatively unchanged, the Natick team has worked to provide greater capabilities using those components.

“For instance, we now field a Low Visibility Body Armor Vest,” he said, “because we realized that there are a lot of situations where our guys are either wearing civilian clothing or wearing an overgarment where they don’t want to be obviously identified as an American operator. So we thought, ‘Why don’t we develop a vest cover that allows us to wear the soft armor insert of our ballistic system?’ So we developed a vest to provide the operator with a specific level of protection where previously he would have had to wear the full body armor system or none at all. I won’t call it concealable body armor. It’s not entirely concealable. But it certainly is less obvious. So, if he’s wearing a jacket, it isn’t obvious that this guy is armored up.”

To meet desires of the SEAL community for greater mobility and flexibility, the vest cover was adapted to carry only the ballistic plate, making it more streamlined and lighter. By wearing the low visibility vest underneath, the SEALS achieve their mobility desires while maintaining a specified protection level.

Another subsequent effort focused on development of a smaller section of soft armor behind the plate, providing slightly less coverage with much greater flexibility.

“It provides a lighter weight, compact body armor vest system for the guys that have to do airborne operations,” Chan said.

Another recent SOF vest development has been the Releasable Body Armor Vest. Building on work performed in the late 1990s by the United States Marine Corps, Chan said that the SOF design introduced a “quick release capability” into the SPEAR body armor line.

“So now, the guy grabs a lanyard, pulls, and the whole vest falls away,” he said. “The nice thing about that is that it not only drops the vest but also all the load carriage that you have attached to the vest. So if your vest pockets are full of magazines, ammunition, and that kind of stuff, it all falls away with the vest. Our old vest didn’t have this quick release capability, but it did have a quick ‘plate eject’ capability. The vest was neutrally buoyant but the problem was that everyone loaded up their vest with mags and they were no longer neutrally buoyant. So we had to get rid of the whole thing, which is what the new system does, to at least give the guy the opportunity to get out of a situation where he needs to dump the vest in a hurry.”

He summarized, “With this design approach, rather than trying to change the ballistics, where all the money has been invested, what we’ve done is to adapt various vest covers to allow users the flexibility to take existing ballistic components and use those components in a manner best suited for their particular application at that particular time.”

For wearing over their selected body armor system, the SOF community has the choice of two load bearing vests, tailored for specific operations.

“For instance, there’s now a heavy emphasis on vehicle operations. Well, our new vest doesn’t have anything on the back so it allows you to sit back in a vehicle. These are the types of things that allow you greater flexibility for the context of operations they have. They have two types of vests. One is called ‘The Rhodesian’ and the other is called ‘The H-harness.’ And they are just more adaptable to the various types of missions that our guys are encountering,” Chan said.

In terms of backpacks, Chan added that the previously fielded SOF backpack system has not met with universal acceptance, which has prompted plans for the release of a new backpack solicitation in the

second half of calendar year 2005. The solicitation will focus on both modularity and flexibility in requesting three new backpack designs: an external frame design, an internal frame design, and something called a modular hybrid that will combine traits of the other two models.

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Scott Gourley is a former U.S. Army officer and the author of more than 1,500...