Combat uniforms must meet an extraordinary variety of demands, including durability, flexibility and the ability to function in heat and cold, wet and dry environments. They must be able to protect soldiers if possible. And uniforms should definitely not help enemies kill or maim U.S. soldiers. That means clothing should not propagate fires from enemy weapons or secondary flames caused by ignition of fuel or other flammable materials.
Ten years of war in difficult conditions have brought major progress in fire-resistant or flame-retardant (FR) clothing and gear. Uniforms have strengthened FR properties even as they better met other demands for flexibility, comfort and durability. Many of the same firms that brought so much improvement in the past decade are now working to take these improvements even further.
The Marine Corps’ current flame-resistant ground-combat uniform is the flame resistant organizational gear (FROG) ensemble developed in response to an urgent statement of need (USON), explained Barbara Hamby, spokesperson for Marine Systems Command. “FROG mitigates flash-flame injuries caused by improvised explosive device attacks,” Hamby noted.
FROG consists of two layers. FROG I has the base layers, which include gloves and balaclavas, close-fitting head garments. FROG II consists of outer garments such as the enhanced flame-resistant combat ensemble and the inclement weather combat shirt. “We also utilize FR undergarments as warming layers issued to all Marines,” Hamby said.
A recent requirement directed that permethrin, a synthetic insecticide used against disease-carrying insects, be applied to the uniform to mitigate vector-born threats and that a woodland camouflage Marine pattern (MARPAT) variant be included.
On the challenges in securing FR gear, Hamby said only that “a long-term, stable and mature production capacity minimizes industry challenges.”
A number of firms have helped industry establish mature production capacity.
“We are a technical fabric component in some of the latest FR products,” summarized Jason Rodriguez in marketing communications for W. L. Gore Associates. For example, the Gore Pyrad Hardshell, currently part of the dismounted fire resistant environmental ensemble (FREE) system offered by ADS, is a flame-retardant product specifically designed for ground troops. Gore Pyrad is a self-extinguishing flame-retardant laminate that offers a high level of protection from flash-fire and arc-flash threats, minimizing burn injury.
This garment system would be used by dismounted soldiers who are outside of combat vehicles. Rodriguez said the inclusion of Gore Pyrad flame-retardant technology would mean the garments would retain their integrity after heat and flame exposure, so if a soldier is exposed to a flash-fire incident the clothing will not crack, shrink, or break apart.
Gore, in partnership with Massif, recently introduced two new FR stretch products, Battleshield and Battleshield X.
Massif Battleshield and Battleshield X feature Gore’s FR stretch technology, which dramatically increases breathability and improves water repellency. The fabrics reduce overheating and chilling from moisture retention, keeping soldiers drier, safer and more effective in many situations and temperatures. And they are highly durable.
Nylon garments have long been proven in the field, but never before provided adequate flame resistance. Massif Battleshield and Battleshield X combine nylon-faced laminates with exceptional FR protection.
The Massif company itself was started by search-and-rescue (SAR) operators who found that FR clothing used by people in SAR was antiquated, explained David Bywater, vice president of government sales at Massif. The firm looked at the materials used by the top makers of outdoor clothing, like Patagonia and The North Face, to see if it could do better. “We set out to develop a flame-resistant material that was also high-performing,” Bywater said.
The firm was looking for FR clothes that stretched for comfort, were very durable, managed moisture well and dried quickly. “If you fly around in a helicopter or ride in a combat vehicle with a seatbelt and the fabric does not stretch, you feel bound up,” Bywater noted.
Massif first developed a three-layer cold-weather garment system, with two base layers to match the environment and a cold-weather soft shell that was wind-proof and highly water-resistant. These elements fabrics are also FR and have been widely adopted by all the U.S. services, including the Coast Guard.
Another very popular Massif product is the Army combat shirt, an FR shirt designed for hot weather and issued to all deploying soldiers. This is a lightweight shirt that can be worn under body armor, looks like a blouse and is very cool and comfortable. “It is one of the most popular uniforms in the Army, and there was nothing like it originally,” Bywater emphasized.
The new Battleshield and Battleshield X are also revolutionary, according to the Massif exec. They use the most advanced materials and mimic the best qualities of non-FR fabrics, but are FR. “The biggest differences are more durability and breathability and lighter weight,” Bywater said.
All the services are looking at the new gear and the Navy has already approved it for Navy and Marine aviators. Massif will begin using Massif Battleshield and Massif Battleshield X fabrics in its Massif elements tactical jacket. Plans for using these fabrics in other U.S. military and tactical garments are underway.
After great FR uniforms have been developed, another challenge is preserving their life-saving properties, even under continuing tough conditions. Source One Tactical provides the flame-resistant integrated patch kit (IPK) that is issued with FR Army combat uniforms and the new Army combat pants, said Director of Business Development Jeff Henkemeyer. “It is a pressure-sensitive uniform repair kit, designed not only to repair the uniform in the field, but also to bring back the protective properties of the repaired area.” Source One also produces an improved FR ghillie suit, an accessory issued to all Army snipers. “We are a problem solver,” Henkemeyer summarized.
Every soldier now gets an IPK. It can fix any tear in uniforms and restore FR properties. If a soldier used an ordinary patch, and a fire got inside the repaired uniform—for example, from an IED—the uniform could burn up from the inside, despite its original FR properties. Now with the IPK, “all they have to do is clean up the tear, put on the adhesive and in 24 hours it can go into the laundry,” Henkemeyer said.
The other product, the ghillie suit, was developed in response to the death of two Army snipers in a fire. Snipers are issued ghillie suits to help them blend into the environment, but these suits had not been FR. And although the suits could be sprayed with FR chemicals, this treatment was temporary and could wear out, leaving snipers just as vulnerable to fire as they had been before.
“We worked with the Army and developed a material that was inherently fire-resistant,” Henkemeyer explained. And neither water nor cold weather degrades the material’s FR properties over time. Called the ghillie suite accessory kit (FR GSAK), the new gear won the Defense Acquisition Challenge Award in 2010.
In the future, the Source One exec predicts, FR fabrics will increasingly integrate more natural fibers, such as wools, so that they combine better moisture management and insulation.
Serket USA is a new company that works exclusively for the U.S. military, explained President Trey Harris. “We make combat uniforms, vehicle uniforms and air-crew uniforms, all flame retardant.”
The three-year-old Serket has no large military contracts yet, but its air-crew uniforms are in trials and the firm has been down-selected for the next generation of uniforms for Army combat vehicles, such as tanks, Strykers, Bradleys and various mine resistant ambush protected vehicles.
Harris said the Serket difference is cutting-edge design and use of different materials. “Firms traditionally used Nomex as a substrate, but we use other materials if they fit the bill.” These alternatives could include hybrids of wool, FR rayon and cotton on the surface.
One reason for seeking different materials is that the traditional material, Nomex, is difficult to print on for camouflage treatment. Harris said there are processes for printing on Nomex, but these processes are patented and expensive.
The other advantage of materials like wool is that they are less expensive and provide more comfort. “It does not feel as harsh as Nomex, but the flame protection is good,” Harris said.
DuPont provides materials for all sorts of personal protection, including individual ballistic and thermal protection, as well as vehicle ballistic protection. And it plays a very important role in FR clothing.
DuPont’s Nomex has been proven in emergency response and in industrial situations. Military clothing made with Nomex fiber is inherently flame-resistant, so FR protection does not wash or wear out. It will not melt, drip or support combustion in the air, giving warfighters the confidence it takes to focus on the mission.
DuPont emphasizes it has worked with the U. S. military for more than two centuries now. In the early 1960s, it pioneered modern FR technology with the development of Nomex for flight suits for the U.S. Navy. And DuPont scientists and engineers continue to research, innovate and test new technologies to keep up with changing times and conditions.
These researchers understand that military personnel face a range of threat levels, so DuPont offers materials that can be further processed to optimize several performance attributes, including protection, durability, comfort and aesthetics.
Military clothing solutions containing Nomex can thus deliver the ideal performance for several threats, either in confined spaces in mounted operations or in dismounted operations, when threats come from fuel fires, improvised explosive devices or rocket-propelled grenades.
One advantage DuPont has is that it not only makes FR materials, but materials to meet many other threats. Other DuPont protective solutions include Kevlar, an aramid fiber that makes clothing, accessories and equipment safe and cut-resistant and is best known for use in ballistic and stab-resistant body armor. DuPont also makes Tensylon, ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene tapes that provide strong and lightweight armor solutions. DuPont also offers garments for chemical protection, all the way from high-performance vapor protection, abrasion resistance and flame-impingement to chemical and biological protection and liquid-splash protection.
DuPont protective materials are used in every U.S. service, Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, Navy and special operations. These materials are tailored to specific military occupation specialties, for confined spaces in aircraft and ground vehicles, Navy shipboard use, or for dismounted operations in hot desert valleys or severely cold mountain ridges.
DuPont researchers are now investigating new fiber formats and blends for FR, including use of wool. They are also looking at integrating different kinds of protective materials for multi-threat protection. Since DuPont makes many of these different materials, this is a natural area of research. And the firm is looking at new energy-management systems for soldiers. ♦