Armor: Graphene Armor Put To Work


November 14, 2018: In late 2018 China announced that its new Z-10 helicopter gunship was being equipped with lightweight graphene (a form of carbon that is extremely thin, strong and cheap) armor. That would make the Chinese the first to make available graphene armor for military applications. Work on this sort of thing has been going on for over a decade with the major problem being developing a cheap and reliable manufacturing process for sheets of this ultrathin graphene. China released few details on its military-grade graphene armor other than that it was rigid and lightweight.

There are already bulletproof graphene armor designs available in the West. Earlier in 2018, a British firm (Graphene Composites) revealed tests of its GC Shield graphene armor. The GC product was not rigid but was based on five layers of graphene separated by lightweight (but bulky and jelly-like) aerogel. This easily stopped multiple 9mm and 357 magnum pistol rounds and there is a bulkier version in the works that can stop high-speed rifle bullets. The Chinese graphene armor apparently uses graphene sheets separated by thin layers of rigid ceramics. A similar design for tank armor (Chobham, also developed in Britain during the 1960s) used layers of metal (steel or depleted uranium) separated by layers of ceramics to provide the most effective tank armor ever, and it is still used today. China is known to have put a lot of money into research on graphene applications so their lightweight armor apparently works.

The same cannot be said for the Z-10 gunship. This is another bit of technology the Chinese spent a long time trying to perfect and it is still considered a second-rate gunship. The Z-10 finally went into mass production during 2013 but even with that, the Chinese army has only ordered 118 to equip nine aviation brigades. All but ten of these have been delivered. There is a squadron (12 helicopters) of Z-10s in each aviation brigade. The move to mass production in 2013 was a surprise because this aircraft has been in development for over 14 years and the several prototypes encountered numerous problems. This led to failed attempts to buy or steal helicopter gunship technology from Russia and South Africa.

In 2011 some of the Z-10 prototypes were sent to Chinese Army aviation units for field testing. While not a failure, the newer and lighter Z-19 was apparently seen as a better candidate for mass production. Work continued on the Z-10 because the Z-19 is basically an armed scout helicopter. China always wanted something more like the American AH-64 Apache. That would be the seven ton Z-10, at least once all the development problems were overcome. The Z-10 is smaller than the 10 ton AH-64 and also has a crew of two. The Z-10 is armed with 30mm autocannon and can carry up to a ton of rockets or missiles. Since 2013 the Z-10 has received a number of electronic accessories like radar, electro-optical sensors for the fire control system, night vision, electronic countermeasures and a GPS based navigation system. These items have been added incrementally, sometimes as upgrades to less capable earlier versions.

The graphene armor was added to protect the cockpit where the pilot and weapons officers are as well as fuel tanks and engines. It was announced that this new graphene armor is also being used for use in protective vests and other to protect types of vehicles and aircraft. Note that the key item in modern protective vests is the composite plates that can stop rifle bullets. These composite plates appeared in the 1990s, but did not use graphene and had to be replaced after being hit because when they stopped a bullet they cracked. Apparently, the graphene-based composite plates are lighter, less bulky and less prone to cracking. Eventually, test results will have to be released if China wants export orders.

Meanwhile, the lighter Z-19 armed scout helicopter has been more in demand by the Chinese army. The Z-19 first appeared during 2010 painted in military colors. The Z-19 was earlier known as the Z-9W. The Z-19 is yet another Chinese helicopter based on the Eurocopter Dauphin (which has been built under license in China for two decades). The Z-19 is a 4.5 ton, two-seat armed helicopter. It can carry a 23mm autocannon and up to half a ton of munitions (missiles, usually). Cruising speed is 245 kilometers an hour and range is 700 kilometers. The Z-19 is basically an upgraded Z-9W and considered more reliable and useful than the Z-10. China provided three Z-10s to Pakistan for evaluation and the Pakistanis turned it down and bought the Italian designed T-129 from Turkey instead. This helicopter is similar in size to the Z-10 but is more reliable and capable. However, the Chinese Army is satisfied with its Z-10s mainly because of the effective accessories that have been added. This apparently includes the graphene armor design.




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