Soldier survivability is a function of protection and other relevant operational factors, such as situational awareness, mobility, and lethality. Throughout history, helmets and body armor have protected soldiers from injury but often at the cost of increased weight, reduced mobility, and reduced situational awareness. These tradeoffs remain relevant today.
Current body armor systems have proven their value in combat, but have three major shortcomings:
-- Current helmet designs are not intended to protect the brain from blast injury, a significant gap in soldier protection. This protection gap stems in part from a lack of understanding of the primary mechanism of brain injury from blast waves.
-- The weight of torso body armor diminishes soldier mobility and performance. Current torso armor systems are over-designed for the ballistic threats soldiers actually face in combat, adding unnecessary weight and hampering overall soldier survivability.
-- Despite their weight, current body armor systems still leave vulnerable parts of the body, such as the face and head, exposed to ballistic threats. Adding more armor is not feasible, however, without significantly lighter armor or augmenting soldier strength to carry more weight.
In the near term, there are steps the Army can take to modestly improve soldier survivability by optimizing body armor and helmet design. This includes improving protection in key areas such as mitigating blast-induced brain injury, and reducing weight in other areas such as torso body armor, increasing mobility.
In the long term, emerging technologies such as robotics, exoskeletons/exosuits, and human enhancement have the potential to dramatically improve soldier survivability. In some cases, these technologies have the potential to fundamentally change a 3,000-year-old dilemma for foot soldiers in war: Their weapons and armor are limited by what they can carry into battle. The Army is already pursuing some of these technologies, but other areas lack investment and leadership.
Finally, while soldier survivability and protection are generally considered in the context of enemy threats, environmental hazards can pose threats to soldiers as well, sometimes even from friendly equipment. DoD studies have found that blast exposure from firing heavy weapons such as the Carl Gustaf recoilless rifle, even in training, is associated with short-term cognitive deficits.1 Additionally, DoD studies have found higher rates of concussion and post-concussion associated symptoms among individuals with a history of prolonged exposure to low-level blasts from breaching and shoulder-fired weapons.2 While further research is needed, there are concrete steps the Army can take today to improve soldier safety.
The Army should review its investment portfolio and re-balance resources as appropriate to ensure it is capitalizing on the most promising opportunities to improve soldier survivability. These include the following recommendations.
Improve Brain Protection from Blast Injury
The Army should increase its efforts to protect soldiers against blast-induced brain injury, with increased resources for testing, experimentation, and combat helmet development.
Key actions include:
**Improve understanding of blast-induced brain injury
-- Expand on existing blast pressure monitoring in training and establish a longitudinal medical study on blast pressure exposure during combat and training in order to better understand the relationship between blast pressure exposure and brain injury.
-- As part of this study, conduct a blast surveillance program to monitor, record, and maintain data on blast pressure exposure for any soldier who is likely to be in a position, in training or combat, where he or she may be exposed to blasts. Include brain imaging of soldiers who have been exposed to blasts as part of this study to better understand how blasts affect the brain.
-- Accelerate computational modeling and experimental research, including with large animal models, into primary blast wave injury in order to better understand how blast overpressure damages the brain.
** Improve helmet protection against blast pressure
-- Test existing helmets, including commercially available variants with modular mandible and face shields, to determine which configuration and materials best protect against primary blast wave injury as a near-term mitigation against possible brain injury.
-- Conduct a tradespace study of various helmet designs in order to compare the amount of reduced blast pressure to any negative effects such as increased weight and torque on the neck, reductions in situational awareness, and other operational effectiveness metrics.
-- Based on the results of the helmet tradespace study demonstrating the ability of certain designs to reduce overpressure exposure and the drawbacks of various designs, establish an interim requirement for protection against blast overpressure while continuing further research to refine the requirement over time.
** Improve safety when training on heavy weapons
-- Take prudent precautions to improve soldier safety when training on heavy weapons, while conducting further research to better understand the cumulative effects on the brain of repeat heavy weapons firing.
-- Expand ongoing studies of blast exposure in training to include all soldiers who are exposed to high overpressure weapons (e.g., Carl Gustaf, AT4, LAW, .50 caliber sniper rifles, explosives).
-- Require all soldiers to wear blast gauges when training with high overpressure weapons.
--Blast gauge measurements should be recorded as part of a blast surveillance program and longitudinal medical study on blast pressure exposure and brain injury.
--Blast exposure history should be included as part of soldier service records (i.e., a “blast exposure record”) in order to ensure that if medical issues arise later, soldiers receive care for any service-connected injuries.
Click here for the full report (10 PDF pages) on the CNAS website.