Magazine article National Defense

New Chem-Bio Protective Ensemble in the Works

Magazine article National Defense

New Chem-Bio Protective Ensemble in the Works

Article excerpt

* The office in charge of chemical and biological protection is gearing up to replace the protective ensemble service members wear when weapons of mass destruction are employed.

Users want more flexibility to don different layers of protection depending on the circumstances. But to do this, they also need better sensors to tell them what types of threats are coming their way, officials said at a recent conference.

Synthetic biology and advances in chemistry mean there are new potential hazards on battlefields. Even mustard gas, first used 101 years ago in World War I, has reappeared, they said.

"The threat changes for us constantly. Every year I think we add more things to the list and we very seldom take anything off the list," said Douglas Bryce, joint program executive officer for chemical and biological defense.

The protective gear soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines wear today has not undergone a major upgrade since the late 1990s. The goal is to begin fielding new protective suits by 2020 or 2021.

The office is working to complete an analysis of alternatives for the uniform integrated protection ensemble increment 2 (UIPEI2), which will replace the joint service lightweight integrated suit technology, Bryce said in an interview at the National Defense Industrial Association's Chemical-Biological-Radiological and Nuclear Defense Conference at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.

The office has been in the field interviewing users as to what they want in an ensemble. Different jobs in the military require different iterations of the gear, so there will be versions for infantry, flight and armored vehicles crews, for example.

The office is looking at a layered concept, which would mean adding various garments depending on how severe the threat is, or it may stick with the traditional one-suit approach, Bryce said.

The ensemble must "address everything we need to do to protect soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines no matter what their mission or function is," he said. And since chemical and biological agents are so different in their nature, "that's a tall order," he added.

There has been a great deal of research and development and new technologies emerging since the last suit was designed two decades ago. The new gear should take advantage of these, he said.

"It's more about whether we can reduce operational burden if you put it on," he said. That is a more complex challenge than simply stating that it should be more comfortable, or less hot to wear. It's about, "how do I shoot, communicate and maneuver in a suit?" he said.

A layered approach might start with an undergarment for low threat levels and progress with more protection--and maybe even a poncho if the danger was liquefied and another layer was needed.

"There are many different concepts we could use or you could just do a suit. It all depends on the user community and what their mission is," he said.

"We have been out several months talking to warfighters from all the services asking them, 'what do you do and what would you do in this environment and what do we need to work on to let you do your mission, yet protect you?"' he said.

The office is not taking a conservative approach as the case has been with many acquisition programs of late, where only high technology readiness levels are acceptable. Bryce said the program manager can "push the boundaries." Game-changing technologies, like self-decontamination--where the protective clothing can rid itself of toxic chemicals or biological agents--are on the table, he said.

The office recently kicked off a challenge prize with $150,000 worth of award money seeking innovative ideas from outside the traditional vendors.

Army Capt. Stephen Gerry, assistant product manager for the UIPEI2, said, "We don't get a lot of non-traditional solvers out there who have potential ideas that we could use so we wanted to try a different avenue where we could reach more people--academia, guys who work on stuff in their basements, veterans--anybody who might have a good idea. …

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