Is truly bulletproof armor possible?

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Russian state-owned defense manufacturers Rostec announced last week that they were rolling out next-generation bulletproof vests for 2035. Destroy light armored vehicles 1,000 meters away. The claim has elicited many skeptical reactions, but can we dismiss it so easily?

There’s no doubt that stopping the .50 Cal is a very different proposition than the 7.62mm rounds that most armor aims to protect against.

“The .50 Cal cartridge is more than four times the weight of the 7.62mm cartridge and a higher speed,” says analyst Robert Bunker of C / O Futures, LLC. “But where the real difference in lethality lies is in the transfer of energy to the target.”

The larger .50 slug strikes with about five times the energy of the rifle cartridge, with devastating effect.

“I fired an M2 .50 Cal against an armored vehicle on a firing range and saw the impact of these shells with my own eyes,” Bunker explains. “They are terrifying. “

In principle, stopping any bullet is just a matter of getting enough metal in the way. In 1880, Australian bushranger Ned Kelly outfitted his gang in homemade armor with helmets, made from plowshares, “as thick as a plate.”

This early body armor earned Kelly the nickname “The Iron Outlaw” and was shotgun-proof ten paces away. In the gang’s last fight in Glenrowan, the police fired rounds at the outlaws with little effect. The problem was the weight: the armor weighed over eighty pounds and its movement was very limited, rendering the wearer virtually unable to aim accurately. The gang only injured two police officers in the final shootout. There was no possibility of running away or riding a horse.

Kelly himself was beaten dozens of times and continued to fight until the police rushed in and physically subdued him.

Heavy armor was common during WWI. The Germans released 500,000 sets of “Sappenpanzer” (trench armor) made of segmented steel plates. Although effective, it was so heavy that it was only practical for machine gunners or sentries. Anyone moving in armor risked drowning in muddy, water-filled shell craters.

Nowadays, it’s possible to make a bulletproof vest strong enough to stop even a .50 caliber slug – as long as mobility isn’t an issue. In the 1990s, American helicopter crews received a protection package known as the Survival Armor Recovery Vest, Insert, and Packets (SARVIP). This included a Kevlar vest with pockets for the ceramic plates larger and thicker than the standard Interceptor armor – an inch thick and weighing about eleven pounds each. These plates “provide protection against .50 caliber shells” (or .30 armor-piercing bullets) to Army specifications. However, their weight made the plaques unpopular and they hardly ever would have been worn.

There is a secondary problem in the fact that simply stopping a ball is not enough: the fierce impact noted by Bunker resembles a kick from a horse. According to a press release from Rostec, the new armor will incorporate “special shock absorbing components” to prevent this type of blunt trauma.

The Russians have already introduced second-generation Sotnik (“Centurion”) armor that incorporates a non-motorized exoskeleton, allowing the wearer to easily carry 100 pounds or more. Russian combat engineers used the equipment in action in Syria and it appears to have been successful. However, motorized exoskeletons are a few years away; the US military has repeatedly failed to turn its concepts of power armor into reality.

“Rostec’s fourth generation armor concept requires advancements in exoskeleton design, power sources, armor survivability, as well as energy absorption and transfer for beginners,” explains Bunker. “I think Rostec – a Russian state-owned company – has engaged in creative futuristic marketing in its recent press releases.”

It may be a matter of waiting. Rather than a nimble Iron Man, the Russians may have in mind something more like the Iron Outlaw, a slightly more mobile version of the tactical ballistic shield used in police headquarters. This can be useful for urban warfare and assaults, but whether the extra protection justifies the weight is another question.

The Russian claim is not entirely implausible. But whether the result is worth it is another matter. Ned Kelly failed to inspire an armored steampunk extravaganza in the 1880s, and Rostec Armor could end up being a similar niche.


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