Sunday, March 10, 2013

Personal thoughts on body amour

Bullet-resistant: A 9mm round fired by a MP5 machine pistol defeated by a ballistic panel during an indoor trial.

I would like to welcome newcomers to this blog and the individuals who made time to pen their thoughts on body armour in the earlier post on the Malaysian security operations in Sabah, Operasi Daulat.

My first experience with body armour took place 14 years ago when I was assigned to write about Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) peace support operations in East Timor (now known as Timor Leste).

Ops Blue Heron 1: The Level 2A vest seen here was usually worn under the shirt. I wore this outside for the picture with the Singapore TV crew, Zainal (centre) and Suhaimi (right) in Timor Leste. Satellite phone technology has grown by leaps and bounds since 1999. 

The assignment to cover Operation Blue Heron 1 in East Timor marked one of four assignments spent embedded with operations conducted by the SAF or Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF).

Two of these were HADR missions while the other two were in places which required what the newsroom admin girls casually referred to as additional insurance coverage. Body armour was worn during the two assignments in places classed by insurers as war zones.

Before flying to East Timor via Darwin, conversations with certain people that led to the recommendation of a Level 2A ballistic vest came about after careful consideration of some of the factors mentioned by netizens in the earlier thread. These factors include the weight of the vest (which affects mobility), impact of heat stress and whether the vest could be worn comfortably without drawing too much attention from other people.

All things considered, a Level 2A vest was considered an adequate baseline. I wore this under my work shirt in Dili and went everywhere with at least a day's supply of combat rations (mix of SAF and Australian rations), 2 litres of water and a kevlar helmet marked front and back with the letters "TV".

The longest time I kept it on was during trip to the border town of Suai, which was the farthest distance we travelled to on our own. We hitched a ride there aboard a World Food Program helicopter in the morning and arranged for the same chopper to pick us up in the arvo. The 40-minute journey to Suai would have taken us some six hours or more to cover by road.

The fact that 60kg rice sacks had to be offloaded from the chopper to accommodate two additional pax (photographer plus reporter) made an impression and we were determined to make the most of this trip. The article, "Signs of a massacre", that resulted from that trip with INTERFET forces in Suai can still be found in cyberspace.

New Zealander troops whom we were attached to in Suai had a higher level of ballistic protection than the concealed vest. The weather during October 1999, while not high summer, was not exactly perfect hiking weather with all that gear. Getting that story meant yomping through plantation areas. Lunch was what we brought along in our bug out bag.

We were in theatre for around 14 days - yes, a blink of an eye compared to months spent in theatre by professional soldiers - but it was a learning experience that brought me outside the classroom, so to speak, and I thank my editor for having sent me there.

In-theatre: The ballistic vest used by SAF troops in 1999 is modelled here. When this picture was taken, I was wearing two vests just for the picture: The concealable one under the shirt and the one borrowed from the SAF. Advancements in ballistic protection have since reduced the weight and bulk of the vest even as the level of protection against small arms fire and shell fragments is improved. There's a story to the Red Cross marking on the truck door: It was made from stickers of the red and white Singapore flag. When the SAF first deployed to Dili, feedback from INTERFET forces and local residents indicated that they thought the flag looked like the red and white Indonesian flag from afar. This caused some concern among people wary of the TNI. Hence the field modification. 

My interest in ballistic protection for individuals and vehicles developed from that East Timor experience.

I am grateful to the individuals who have helped me see and learn firsthand how improvements in ballistic protection unfolded since 1999. In 14 years, I have made the most of opportunities to learn about the subject and the pictures you see here are shown for the first time.

Show-and-tell: This is how ballistic material used for body armour is tested. Note the device in the foreground. The firer aims to shoot at the target through the hoops, which are used to measure the muzzle velocity of the rounds.

Few civilians get the chance of seeing destructive tests conducted on body armour to demonstrate the breaking point of the ballistic fibres.

Being there during certain events helped build up one's understanding of ballistic technology above and beyond what one would find on Internet websites or from books.

Point blank: Keeping the ballistic panel in his sights, a police officer takes careful aim at a numbered panel on the ballistic fabric. Note the collimeter in the foreground (also used during the oudoor shoot) which measured the speed of bullets fired through its metal hoops. 

Exposure to field trials provided a glimpse of what goes on when one talks about Ops-Tech integration. Having grown up reading stories from assorted Singaporean journalists like Felix Soh, whose hands-on approach to writing about defence subjects shows in their writing, I too aspired to walk in their shadow.

There is usually a tradeoff during Ops-Tech integration. Field trials which demonstrate what defence science can offer and what operatives require allow both parties to find some middle ground.

During such interaction, we get to know key differences between do not know (i.e. soldier is blissfully unaware of the technology available), do not have (either cannot afford to buy or was not equipped due to logistics cock-ups), do not want and do not need. There are clear and distinct differences between these four levels of awareness, which could translate to life-saving advantages to the combatman (or lack thereof).

In the bigger picture, Singapore is fortunate it has invested in a defence ecosystem that has the means and know-how to conduct its own trials in various areas of defence science. This enables Singapore to engage in meaningful conversations with military equipment suppliers as our defence scientists and engineers know what parameters to measure during field trials, rather than taking the manufacturer's specifications at face value.

If you suspect this personal experience is just the tip of the iceberg, you are right. But this is about the sum total of what I'm prepared to share on this subject. :-)

P.S. If there's one regret while I was with the 90 cents newspaper, it was my failure to banish the term "bullet-proof vest" from its stylebook. Having seen how ballistic fabrics are tested, one would know there is no such thing as a bullet-proof vest.


Anonymous said...

Hi David, this is a very informative article.

Being an NSF from the mid-90s, I was amazed when SAF deployed troops in body armor to Timor Leste, this was the first time we have ever seen armor worn for "green" ops, as opposed to the ones used on the SQ117 assault. An example of the two versions can be seen in the Army Museum, IIRC.

The latest IBA vest from Mehler Vario ( seems to be more of a holder for soft armour panels and SAPI plates.

I could imagine these, together with upper arm and face protection useful on mounted operations, but during dismounted patrols, especially with the amount of ops gear carried, seems like a surefire receipe for heatstroke in our expected AOO.

I will not even touch on the reduced mobility with all the plates in, except that there's that one scene in the "Blackhawk Down" where some Rangers sacrificed protection for mobility with fatal consequences.


David Boey said...

Hi Anon 9:26 PM,
Re: Heatstroke. A "combat shirt" designed to be worn under Individual Body Armour is being tested to see if this can reduce heat buildup.

Over the years, defence science has contributed meaningfully to reducing deadweight through more effective ballistic fabrics and other material.

As with many things in life, the choice of what you want to bring to your area of operations involves a tricky balance of compromises.

My approach to ops is this: Go as best prepared as you can. Never be the weak link in the media group. The rest you leave to fate.

That gave me tremendous peace of mind and helped me focus on the tasks at hand.

Anyway, those days are behind me.

Best regards,


Anonymous said...

Hi David, just two questions.

How did you go about buying your ballistic vest? Did you choose it yourself, get government approval, have it delivered to your home and claim the expense?

The vehicle originally carried the Singapore flag but was changed to the red cross. Was its purpose also changed to avoid carrying armed personnel? Personnel and vehicles can claim protection of arms or the red cross but not both. How about other vehicles that carried armed personnel? Were the flags removed from them without replacement?

Jason said...

thoughts on MINDEF's COS statement?

Solomon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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Anonymous said...

In Singapore, just need to throw a grenade and everything will sink to the sea. No need to fight.

OldSchool BigShot said...

Back in the day, old school SAF, Body Armour is your 2IC telling you you are not allowed to get shot otherwise extra duties.:D

AhTiong said...

How come the TV guys with you so garang? Never wear?

Are you wearing for wayang?

Anonymous said...

Hi David, hope you can enlighten us on these two questions:

How did you go about buying your ballistic vest? Did you choose it yourself, get government approval, have it delivered to your home and claim the expense?

The vehicle originally carried the Singapore flag but was changed to the red cross. Was its purpose also changed to avoid carrying armed personnel? Personnel and vehicles can claim protection of arms or the red cross but not both. How about other vehicles that carried armed personnel? Were the flags removed from them without replacement?

Anonymous said...

Unanswered questions.

Whether SAF was ignorant of this rule of war, we may draw our own conclusions.