The thermoplastic Enhanced Combat Helmet. (Wikimedia)
The Corps’ next-generation helmet, rated to stop high-velocity rifle rounds at point-blank range, is set for fielding before the new year, according to Marine officials.
Marine procurement officials placed an order for 3,850 of the helmets July 16 and will begin pushing those to Marines downrange or slated for deployment during the first quarter of fiscal 2014, which begins Oct. 1, according to Deidre Hooks, the team lead for the Enhanced Combat Helmet Team.
Ultimately, the Marine Corps plans to buy 77,000 of the helmets, enough to outfit a large contingent of deployed Marines. The helmet will be issued to those going into harm’s way: a deployment in Afghanistan, for example, or a Marine expeditionary unit headed to the Middle East. They are to be turned in when Marines return to garrison.
Older helmets, like the Lightweight Helmet, the Advanced Combat Helmet and a few Modular Integrated Communications Helmets, which are rated to stop only fragmentation and low-velocity pistol rounds, will still be used for training and noncombat purposes, according to Col. Michael Manning, program manager for Infantry Weapons Systems at Marine Corps Systems Command, aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.
The key to the new helmet’s strength is its use of an ultra high molecular weight polyethylene — a sort of high-tech plastic — that allows the helmet to defeat stronger rounds without increasing weight. In some sizes, the ECH is a hair lighter than the Lightweight Helmet, but most Marines will notice very little difference in feel or appearance, Manning said. It will be nearly identical to the Advanced Combat Helmet, which lacks a small bill at the front and has a low-profile design that aids in mobility.
“I’d wear it in a heartbeat,” Manning said. “Other helmets have been tested against a pistol caliber round and fragmentation. This helmet defeats a rifle round.”
Manning said that during his time as a commander in the war zone, two of his Marines took hits to the head from rifle rounds and kept fighting. But they were lucky. Those were glancing blows fired at a distance, he said.
With the ECH, “You take a rifle and a point-blank range, zero obliquity, dead center, it stops that round,” Manning said.
The initiative to develop the Enhanced Combat Helmet began March 2, 2009, with an Urgent Statement of Need, which called for a stronger helmet that could defeat stronger rounds without adding weight to Marines’ combat loads. The Marine Corps was the first, but the Army quickly followed suit with a memorandum dated March 20, 2009. The Navy also called for a stronger helmet with a Chief of Naval Operations Letter dated Feb. 16, 2010.
The Marine Corps fast-tracked the development, but the helmet was delayed by the revision of Defense Department-wide protocols mandated by the Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation. The helmet subsequently failed testing under the new, more stringent guidelines introduced in February 2011. On several occasions, helmets were perforated by projectiles, Manning said.
At first, the Marine Corps blamed the manufacturer, Ceradyne Inc. During a House Armed Services Committee hearing in March 2011, Brig. Gen. Frank Kelley, commander of Marine Corps Systems Command, attributed the failure to a “production anomaly.” After being cleared for low-rate production, the company increased the temperature during the curing process to dry the helmet’s paint faster, Lt. Col. Kevin Reilly, head of Infantry Combat Equipment at MARCORSYSCOM, told Marine Corps Times that same month.
Marine officials later asserted that the failures were due to the new testing procedures mandated by DOT&E.
But the problems were in fact with the helmets, Manning said. The more rigorous testing exposed flaws that might have gone undetected under old protocols. While helmets used to get a pass or fail designation, the new, statistically based protocols require 90 percent confidence in a helmet’s ability to defeat the projectiles it is rated to stop.
MARCORSYSCOM sent a team to Ceradyne’s production facility to help remedy helmet anomalies, and the ECH finally passed Corrective Action Verification Testing in June 2012. That demonstrated Ceradyne could manufacture quality helmets during full-rate production. The helmet then went on to clear the final testing hurdle — First Article Testing III — in March and April. Those further-revised protocols addressed criticism that DOT&E had failed to get input from service leaders.
“When we went to FAT III, the helmet passed every test protocol that DOT&E has given us,” Manning said.