Military vehicles and their occupants are exposed to many sources of threat. In today’s scenarios, they may encounter enemy fire from all angles – not just from the front, but also from the sides and underneath. Clearly, these vehicles need to be designed with all eventualities in mind.

This said, it is important to establish what hazards your vehicle is actually likely to face. While it is certainly possible to deck it out in several tons of armour, that isn’t necessarily the most worthwhile use of time and money. In fact, the extra weight may constitute a risk in itself, reducing manoeuvrability and turning the vehicle into a sitting duck for threats.

Professor Bryn James, head of the armour and protection science and technology centre at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), has long concerned himself with this dilemma. As he explains, today’s vehicle designers are concerned less with defending against every conceivable hazard, and more with finding the optimum balance between armour and agility.

"You could protect against everything, but the issue is knowing whether that’s appropriate or not," he says. "What you need to do is make sure you’ve got armour against the threats you actually meet. We need to have decent intelligence, because armour is essentially a burden on a vehicle until it’s used, and it limits you in what you can do."

At Dstl, the main point of focus is therefore not armour per se but, rather, integrated survivability. From a research standpoint, this entails analysing all the relevant factors – speed across terrain, terrain accessibility, equipment availability and so on – to build a complete picture of how well a vehicle can protect its occupants.

Get an upgrade
Of course, since military hazards are evolving so fast, no defensive strategy should be seen as definitive. Dstl has a strong interest in developing armour that will be fit for purpose in decades to come. However, to ensure that this can be fitted easily, it works on the principle of adaptability – constantly upgrading what is available so as to combat the threats that arise.

"Because the field is actually moving quite quickly, we don’t want to put armour on a vehicle that has to be there for the next 20 years," says James. "We know in a year’s time we will have come up with something better. So we want the ability to put things on as they arrive, and that’s what we do all the time: we upgrade armour as we get better materials and systems."

For instance, Dstl is constantly looking to reduce vehicle weight, either through developments in material science, or through locating alternative threat detection mechanisms that negate the need for armour altogether. Its stated aim is broad: to "maximise the impact of science and technology for the defence and security of the UK".

"We know that, in a year’s time, we will have come up with something better. So we want the ability to put things on as they arrive, and that’s what we do all the time: we upgrade armour as we get better materials and systems."

Currently, it is moving into its next phase of armour development, creating multipurpose vehicles that are suited to a wide array of military scenarios.

"Over the last few years, we did urgent operational requirements work for Iraq and Afghanistan, but now we are moving into contingency army operations," says James.

"Instead of making armour that is specific for, say, the Afghanistan conflict, we’re designing armour systems that are good for everything, so that, as we go forward, we’ve got armour ready for anything that we need to do."

So what material properties are typically required? As James discusses, this is difficult to ascertain in a conventional laboratory environment since battlefield conditions are so hard to replicate.

"What you find is that, when armour is working, the properties you need are not the properties you would measure in a laboratory at room temperature and at slow rates," he says. "The material properties actually change when that material is in an extreme dynamic environment. So there is a massive field of research looking at the material properties at high strain rates."

Terracotta army
The aim is to find materials that offer excellent strength for their weight under dynamic conditions. At present, Dstl is most interested in various metal alloys such as steel, titanium and aerospace aluminium alloys, alongside – perhaps surprisingly – ceramics.

More commonly associated with chintzy pottery than fortified vehicles, ceramics have in fact been used in armour for decades, and Dstl is undertaking research to improve its performance on the battlefield. In 2013, a dedicated facility opened in Newport, South Wales, with £2 million of joint Dstl and Kennametal funding. The first facility of its kind in the UK, it manufactures full-size ceramic armour components large enough for impact tests.

Another development on the horizon is electric armour. Several years ago, the department made headlines with its so-called ‘Star Trek style force-field’ armour, which would supposedly repel incoming fire through an ‘electromagnetic force field’. James says that, while this armour is indeed on the way, its functionality was somewhat misconstrued.
"It was wishful thinking by the journalist," he says. "The electric armour, which was misnamed force-field armour, essentially works like an old-fashioned fuse box. In the old days, fuse boxes had a wire that would vaporise if too much current flowed through it, and that’s how electric armour works."

"This is quite a novel development and there are lots of steps required to get it up to the technological readiness with which it can be fielded. But it’s no longer a fundamental research programme – it’s now an applied research programme – and we’re getting there."

This armour will be based on capacitor discharge. Modern high-performance capacitors can achieve higher power density than rechargeable batteries. Such would enable protection from rocket-propelled grenades using relatively small amounts of electricity.

They could then be recharged in preparation for the next attack. Flexible and lightweight, electric armour will provide the same resistance to attack as standard metal plating.

Beg, borrow and steal
The underlying technology here has been rendered possible through developments in industry. In recent years, the military arena has been more inclined to borrow from the civil arena than the other way round – a clear reversal of historic trends.

"A few years ago, technologies were developed first in the military and then migrated into the civil arena, but nowadays it’s much more that there are very rapid developments in civilian areas that can then be used in the military," says James.

"Developments such as those in capacitors are moving very quickly and we are taking advantage of that. It’s being driven by the fact that in the civil arena there is quite an emphasis on power generation, electrical efficiency, electrical storage and transport of electricity and battery-powered appliances, so we are benefitting from big business in portable electrical power."

Sensors are also filtering through from industry. As they become cheaper, smaller and less power-intensive, they are finding ever more applications within the military sphere; facilitating a so-called ‘smart armour’ that could revolutionise tomorrow’s combat vehicles.

"Smart armour is essentially an armed system with sensors that allows some intelligent process to take place," says James. "There are essentially two reasons why you’d do that. One is to activate some mechanism at an optimum time. The other is to tell you how your system is performing – so has it been attacked, is it in good condition? You can use that information to manage your armour as part of a network-centric system."

In other words, ‘smart’ tanks would function less as discrete vehicles and more as a system of interconnected nodes. This could make operations easier to mastermind. The integrity of your armour would be known not only to the people in your vehicle, but also the wider community on the battlefield.

In years to come, James feels Dstl will focus its energies further on active protection systems of this kind, which have the added bonus of minimising weight. He also believes that the emphasis on adaptability is unlikely to die down.

"A somewhat pedestrian, but really important, factor is to make systems adaptable and modular, because the development of protection systems is so rapid that you have to be able to change them as quickly, cheaply and easily as possible," he points out.

"For instance, you might want to change from explosive reactive armour to electric armour to an active protection system to a passive protection system as and when you need to. That’s got to happen and we are working in all those fields."

Clunky metal armour may soon be a thing of the past. As researchers endeavour to achieve the same results at lower weights, they are designing protection systems that swap heftiness for deftness. For vehicles navigating tomorrow’s battlefield, the lighter, smarter and more adjustable the better.