Material solutions for vehicle armour technology

3 min read

How do you protect a vehicle from a massive roadside bomb? Or an individual from a high-velocity armour piercing round? Or allow a bomb disposal officer to be both safe and able to perform his role effectively?

Morgan Advanced Composites has developed, manufactured and fitted the body and vehicle armour that has been protecting British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than a decade.

As a leading supplier of advanced armour systems to the UK Ministry of Defence for more than 25 years, Morgan's Composites and Defence Systems business, formerly known as NP Aerospace, has supplied more than 100,000 Osprey body armour plates and 100,000 Mk 7 combat helmets for operations in Afghanistan. Globally, Morgan has supplied in excess of a million combat helmets.

At the heart of this market success, of course, is the company's unceasing development of new material solutions. Chris Davies, the company's technical director, explains the technical challenges such materials face. "The issues for any armour are basically fragment protection, ballistic protection and blunt trauma protection," he says, "The problem is that different materials offer different protective properties, so finding a balance is the hardest part. For instance, on our latest AC904 model helmet a hybrid of materials are used; ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene, which is ballistically efficient, but not as structural as the Aramids we've previously used. At the same time, ceramics are best used to stop armour-piercing ballistic rounds, but composites are excellent against fragmentation such as shrapnel from a blast."

The other significant factor in body armour is that it has to be worn by an individual and so needs to be as light as possible, while providing the greatest possible protection to the wearer.

The next generation AC904 combat helmet developed by Morgan Advanced Materials improves on the exacting standards of the AC903 product, whilst being 30% lighter, providing a reduced weight burden of 0.4kg per helmet. Employing new materials technologies and leading edge manufacturing techniques, the new helmet can be fitted with both current and future head-mounted systems and protective eyewear – a key requirement for militaries around the world.

Morgan's other well known area of expertise is in ballistic plate armour. It has supplied 100,000 of its Osprey armour plates to the Ministry of Defence. These are ceramic inserts developed by NP Aerospace in just six weeks to cover the shortcomings of the previous body armour during the UK's Iraq deployment.

Says White: "Most of our developments have been dictated by a combination of operational requirements from the MoD and new developments in the different raw materials available.

In the case of the Osprey plates, we have moved from heavy ceramics to polyethylene, which has reduced the overall weight of the plates by over 2kg in the space of 10 years."

However, the key point of these materials is to protect the user, meaning that no reduction in their capabilities is acceptable. In fact, though, the next generation of body armour is not only much lighter, but also it offers much greater protection.

The reason for this is that it is able to absorb more ballistic strikes than its predecessors. A few years ago, body armour plates could only absorb one shot before becoming structurally unsound. This was in no small part due to the cracks such an impact caused that served to weaken the overall effectiveness of the plate. More modern systems are able to absorb two impacts, but even here there is still a danger that the cracks could cause weakness.

This problem has been overcome by Morgan Advanced Materials, whose crack mitigation technology on its next-generation body armour means that the impact is absorbed much more quickly and its energy is dissipated locally, meaning that the armour can absorb multiple shots should its wearer be so unfortunate.

Soldier protection systems are one aspect of Morgan's armour offering, but perhaps even more impressive is its work on 'Platform Protection'. This essentially means armour for military vehicles. Engineered using a combination of advanced ceramic and structural composite materials, its high-performance multi-hit armour weighs up to 50% less than equivalent steel products for high threat level systems.

Perhaps Morgan's most famous achievement in this sphere was in turning around the Mastiff project in just 12 weeks to meet an urgent operational requirement during the Iraq deployment. Designed to replace the Snatch Land Rover, which had proved vulnerable to roadside IEDs, the Mastiff came to Morgan as a basic vehicle from the US and was designed, fitted out and delivered by Morgan to the field of operation just three months later.

This project involved the fitting of Applique armour to the outside of the vehicles and shaped Spall armour inside, which means that fewer panels are required, meaning there is less chance of pieces of armour shearing off and becoming projectiles. These are compression moulded in ultra high molecular polyethylene, by the company, which not only reduces the number of panels required, but also reduces the 'edge' effect.

More recently, Morgan Advanced Materials, through its Composites and Defence Systems business has drawn on its extensive materials and engineering expertise to design and develop a bespoke armoured composite crew compartment for Tata Motors' Light Armoured Multipurpose Vehicle (LAMV) programme for the Indian Ministry of Defence. The LAMV prototype was successfully unveiled at Defexpo, New Delhi, in February.

The LAMV incorporates crew protection based upon Morgan's bespoke composite and ceramic 'pod' technology, which has been developed over the past 20 years. The pod creates a detachable, blast and ballistic-resistant crew compartment, which is easily integrated onto the Tata-produced chassis and can be modified to provide higher levels of protection as and when required. The Morgan composite and ceramic 'pod' provides a weight saving in excess of 1000kg, making it less than half the weight of a similarly protected steel structure.