The U.S. Army has ordered another 60,000 MICH (Modular Integrated Communications Helmet) helmets. Formerly called the Gallet, after the designer, and now known as the FAST ballistic helmet, the manufacturer has long been known for designing helmets for fire, police, and rescue personnel. When first issued to troops eight years ago the MICH was 14 percent lighter (at 1.36 kg/3 pounds) and more comfortable than the 1980s era PASGT. MICH was most appreciated because it can be worn for long periods without becoming uncomfortable. The latest models are even more comfortable, with an improved interior that also offers more protection against bumps and explosions.
The older PASGT would, after many hours, literally become a pain in the neck. The MICH helmet offered the same degree of protection and was also less of a hassle when you are in the prone position and wearing a protective vest that is riding a little high (the bottom of the Kevlar helmet tends to collide with the top of the vest in those situations). Initially it was mostly SOCOM (Special Operations Command) and paratroopers who were issued MICH helmets but they could also be bought direct from the manufacturer (which some troops did). The Department of Defense began using them eight years ago, with an initial order for 90,000. Even civilian contractors could get them (for about $500).
Inspired by the success of MICH, a version of the helmet was renamed ACH (Advanced Combat Helmet) and ordered in large quantities. Last year an improved version, ECH (Enhanced Combat Helmet) showed up. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps found that their new ECH was even more bullet proof than expected. While testing the ECH it was discovered that the machine firing metal fragments at the ECH (to represent shell and bomb fragments) could not fire fragments fast enough to penetrate. The ECH was supposed to be invulnerable to pistol bullets, and it was, but some types of metal fragments were expected to still be dangerous. So ECH was tested to see how well it could resist high-powered rifle bullets. ECH was not 100 percent invulnerable but in most cases it would stop anything fired from a sniper rifle. Overall, it was calculated that the ECH was 40 percent more resistant to projectiles and 70 percent stronger than the previous ACH helmet.
The ECH made use of a new thermoplastic material (UHMWP or Ultra-High Molecular Weight Polyethylene), which is also used in the current FAST helmet. UHMWP is lighter and stronger than the Kevlar used in the ACH and earlier PASGT and, it turned out, provided much better protection as well. The ECH began replacing the ACH last year, with 200,000 to be purchased. The ECH costs $600 each, twice as much as the ACH. But for troops under fire, the additional cost is well worth the additional protection.
Combat helmets, which appear to be low-tech, have been anything-but over the last three decades. Advances in the design and construction of helmets have been accelerating, especially in the last decade. For example, the ACH underwent some tweaks to make it more stable. That was required because more troops were being equipped with a flip down (over one eye) transparent computer screen. The device is close to the eye, so it looks like a laptop computer display to the soldier and can display maps, orders, troop locations, or whatever. If the helmet jumps around too much it's difficult for the solider to make out what's on the display. This can be dangerous in combat.
It was only seven years ago that the ACH began entering service. The ACH completely replaced the 1980s era PASGT (Personnel Armor System for Ground Troops) helmets five years ago. The Kevlar PASGT design was a third generation combat helmet, nicknamed the "Fritz" after its resemblance to the German helmets used in both World Wars. That German World War I design, which was based on an analysis of where troops were being hit by fragments and bullets in combat, was the most successful combat helmet in both world wars. This basic design was finally adopted by most other nations after the American PASGT helmet appeared in the 1980s. Most of the second generation helmets, which appeared largely during World War II, were similar to the old American "steel pot" design, which lasted about 40 years. The fourth generation helmets, currently in service, use better synthetic materials and more comfortable design.
The ACH, like MICH/FAST are smaller and lighter (they weigh about the same). The ACH was first developed as a special project by the U.S. Army Special Forces and was so successful that the rest of the army began buying them.
The first modern combat helmets appeared during World War I (1914-18), with the U.S. adopting the flat, British design steel model and using it for 25 years. The PASGT lasted 25 years, but the ACH was gone in less than ten, replaced by the ECH. MICH/FAST is built to take lots of accessories and is the version bought by police and emergency service organizations.