After 14 years of warfare that has been pock-marked with improvised explosive devices, the Pentagon has come up with a motorcycle-like infantry helmet that is meant to protect soldiers from both shrapnel and concussive blasts. Sadly, this new technology is anything but ready for combat.
The whole idea behind this new helmet design is not just to make soldiers look like dorky alien invaders, but to save their eyes, jaws, chins, noses, cheeks and brains, as well as their skulls, from both impact and blast trauma.
The Conformal Integrated Headgear System, or CIPHER in cool-guy DoD lingo, is a modular system that includes a lower mandible shield, a helmet and a visor. These components can be interchanged based on the threat scenario and the mission, and wearable communications, night vision, thermal cameras and heads-up displays can be easily installed on the helmet.
The whole defense oriented 'wearables technology' sector is finally beginning to blossom from a clunky cottage industry to a predicted $5.8B one by 2018, and some form of standardized infantry headgear will be the impetus for a large portion of that dollar figure.
This whole 'wearables' boom comes after a bloated developmental saga of the Land Warrior System that lasted many years and was based on premature technology. This ordeal had made the 'wearables' category a less than attractive investment for defense contractors over the last half decade or so, but in an age where everyone has a computer in their pocket capable of mapping, photographing and just about everything else, the soldier seems left behind technologically.
This is about to change rapidly.
Soldiers don't refer to their helmets as 'brain buckets' for nothing. Almost three fourths of all soldier injuries from Iraq and Afghanistan were due to high-explosive weaponry, according to the Pentagon. Statistics like this one were driving factors in CIPHER's design, but testing conducted by the Naval Research Laboratory showed that the helmet actually enhanced certain blast waves, in certain areas of the helmet, under certain configurations, instead of deadening them.
Much of this has to do with the pocket areas between the skull and the helmet's outer shell, designed for deadening crushing forces like those from a motorcycle accident, but not ideal for pressure waves entering the helmet through gaps in the helmet's structure. Additionally, when the facial pieces were added, such as the jaw protector, the blast pressure around that area was greatly decreased, while pressures were greatly increased in other key areas, such as the forehead, when compared with wearing just the helmet alone, without any facial protection.
These tests were clearly unacceptable, but they may give designers critical information for improving the system. Pressure wave distribution is not the only criticism of the new helmet. Some have questioned how its use would affect mobility and situational awareness during a gunfight, as well as how it would effect a soldier's ability to clearly and quickly produce a sight picture and cheek weld with their rifle.
The reality is that the whole blast wave caused traumatic brain trauma problem, and its relation to helmet design, remains an elusive science as there are no set goal metrics required for future infantry helmets in this regard, at least not yet.
In the end, there will be no perfect helmet design, but the modular nature of CIPHER could allow for soldiers to configure their headgear based on what the greatest threat may be.
For instance, if shrapnel and flying debris are the biggest threat for a particular mission, such as dismounted urban combat operations, then wearing the full facial guard may be logical. If riding in a vehicle along routes that are infested with roadside bombs than a soldier may wear just the helmet itself, without the face shields.
Regardless, CIPHER clearly has more evolving and developmental testing to do before it makes its way to the front lines, and then the real battle may be making soldiers wear a bulky motorcycle helmet-like device for actual combat downrange, where every pound of additional gear can get you harmed even if it is meant to save your life. Additionally, wearing a enlarged motorcycle helmet around all day in the searing temperatures of the Middle East may be just about the last thing the average infantryman wants to do, no matter how much protection it is said to offer.
H/T to USA Today, Pictures via DoD.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com