The Improvised Explosive Device (IED), in all its forms, has become the most significant threat to troops operating in war zones. The wide spectrum of devices – ranging from rudimentary home-made explosives to sophisticated weapon systems containing high grade explosives – means that IEDs wound indiscriminately.
The detonation of any powerful explosive generates a blast wave of high pressure that spreads out at close to 500 metres per second from the point of explosion. The blast is a two-part assault with an initial shock wave of very high pressure followed closely by the "secondary wind": a huge volume of displaced air flooding back into the area, again under high pressure.
The injury profile seen with IEDs does not follow the traditional pattern of injuries seen with conventional bullets or high explosives. Troops are sandblasted by soil and debris; dismembered; maimed by projectiles, poisoned by clouds of bacteria-laced debris; and can be burned by post-blast flames. IEDs are often buried, the blast from below causing damage to the lower body.
Presenting to the 2013 TTNA conference on an “Assessment of Novel Soft Armour Options”, Meredith Mahoney, defence scientist with Australia's Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) said combat apparel was hot, heavy and uncomfortable for troops fighting in the hot and uncomfortable environment of places such as Afghanistan. While science and industry can attempt to protect troops, solutions are often cumbersome and weighty. Soldiers by definition are required to be nimble and capable of pursuing combatants over diverse terrain.
The challenge was to develop various options which could be utilised by the Australian Defence Forces to create apparel which could mitigate injury to the soldier, without increasing the weight or thermal burden compared with current items. Comfort, particularly for undergarments to protect the soldier’s lower regions is particularly important. Australian scientists set out to test various novel materials and a variety of commercial off-the-shelf materials in order to compare their ballistic and thermal resistance and moisture transport abilities.
According to Meredith, the challenge is to fundamentally understand the dynamic ballistic properties of fibres and textiles and the interactions between threats and materials,including shock wave propagation. The secret, she says, is in the architecture of the fabric which dictates its performance, particularly its ability to breath and conform to body shape, critical factors for comfort and protection.