The 16th International Personal Armour Systems Symposium, known as PASS 2023, was held from September 11-15 at the Maritim Hotel and Conference Centre in Dresden, Germany. This event brought together experts in industry, academia, and the military/government sector to discuss recent developments, share research, and explore new technologies.
The symposium featured a series of keynote speeches, technical sessions, and poster presentations, focusing on the latest trends and challenges in personal armor systems. Though most of the sessions had to do with the methodologies used in armor testing, and how those methods might relate to real world protective capabilities, there were several that should be of interest to a wider audience. Those are worth a brief review here.
Critical Discussions on Body Armor Standards: Revisions and New Benchmarks
Doubtless the most impactful session was NIJ Standards for Ballistic Resistance of Body Armor and Stab Resistance of Body Armor: New Developments, which was delivered by officials from the NIJ.
The 0101.07 draft that was released years ago is, with only a couple of minor changes, still accurate. The main change concerns the 7.62x39mm test threat. The specific challenge with this round is that the mild steel core or Type PS bullet is well known for significant variability in its manufacturing. This variability can result in inconsistent performance when the rounds are used in testing body armor, potentially compromising the reliability of test results.
The MSC variant’s variability arises from differences in materials, core mass, dimensions, and even the hardness of the steel used in the core, which can affect how the round behaves upon impact. For testing purposes, this means that a bullet from one batch of MSC rounds could be much more likely to penetrate an armor plate than a bullet from a different batch, leading to a lack of standardization in test conditions.
To address this, the NIJ had originally planned to develop a 7.62x39mm surrogate bullet to use, which would presumably ensure that every test bullet is effectively indistinguishable from every other test bullet, and that all of them are as close as possible to the average observed performance of the 7.62x39mm MSC rounds encountered in the field.
The surrogate round is still in development, but that development is taking considerably longer than anticipated, so the updated 0101.07 Standard specifies the use of a factory round. For, while work on the surrogate was ongoing, it was found that 7.62x39mm Type 56 from Factory 31 is sufficiently uniform and reliable. This Type 56 Factory 31 bullet will be the designated NIJ test threat in 7.62x39mm until the NIJ’s own surrogate round is validated and ready for use.
Another update is that the NIJ is moving all test threats to a new standard 0123.00. This is meant as a threat repository for future NIJ specifications. So the 0101.07 specification, when it’s released, will effectively say “refer to 0123.00 for the threat details associated with Level RF2,” and a future ballistic shield specification might say the exact same thing. This will help to standardize ballistic threats and velocities across the NIJ’s family of armor specifications.
There are a few additional changes from the draft document, though these are minor and mostly have to do with shot location. There’ll be a shot onto the crown of hard armor plates, as the NIJ believes that the crown might be the weakest location on the plate. They don’t mention this, but it’s also the most likely region to be damaged in a drop test. Further, there are new shot locations for soft armor panels, and there are additional test provisions for female-structured soft armor panels.
There are also big changes coming to the NIJ’s standard for stab resistant armor. A forthcoming new specification, 0115.01, will apparently include just two levels: “Commercial” and “Improvised.”
The commercial level tests armor against sharp knives and spikes – not either/or – made from good steel. In this respect it’s similar to the current 0115.00 specification, where all of the knife and spike threats are of “commercial” quality. “Commercial E1” is just 24J and the overtest impact energy, where 20mm of penetration is allowed, is 36J. This corresponds to the old Knife/Spike-1.
The improvised level, where armor is tested against low-quality weapons, starts at 43J for E1 and goes to an overtest energy of 65J. (Interestingly, the NIJ official who gave the presentation noted that one of the challenges they faced was finding a commercial source for the low-quality “improvised” weapons.)
So, in a major departure from the current specification, it seems your only options in 0115.01 are going to be knife-1/spike-1 against standard test blades, or knife-3/spike-3 against significantly duller and weaker test implements.
The NIJ official who gave the presentation indicated that 0101.07, 0123.00, and 0115.01 are likely to be released before the end of 2023. There’ll be a transitionary phase where 0101.06 and 0115.00 are phased out, and a new NIJ CPL won’t launch until at least a year after the new specs are released.