Infantry: China Embraces SAPI


March 25, 2020: In late 2019 Chinese media revealed that nearly two billion dollars was being spent over the next two years to purchase 1.4 million modern protective vests and other items of bullet and shell fragment resistant gear for Chinese troops. These protective vests, as they are called in the West, will also include nearly a million of the bulletproof ceramic composite plates (SAPI, for Small Arms Protective Inserts) for the protective vests front line combat troops wear. These are an American innovation, and since the 1990s, the U.S. has purchased over twelve million SPPI inserts. Why so many? It's because the plates are bullet-proof, but only once or twice. The plates will stop high-powered rifle bullets, but this weakens the plates, often causing them to crack or chip. So every time a plate is hit, it is discarded and a new one slipped into the vest. The brittleness of these plates means they can be cracked if dropped or otherwise allowed to hit a hard surface. It’s an odd characteristic for plates that will stop high-powered 7.62mm bullets, but it works. The downside is that the plates are not particularly durable, and wear out quickly on the battlefield.

Another reason for so many plates purchased is the development of new model plates, while many of the older ones were still available. Thus since 2011 the U.S. Army and Marines have been replacing existing SAPI ceramic bulletproof plates, with thicker, and heavier (by about 37 percent) ESAPI plates. The ESAPI appeared in 2008 and provided better protection from any kind of high powered bullet. The basic "Level 3" SAPI plates are 25.4x305cm (10x12 inches) and weigh 2.1 kg (4.6 pounds) each. For greater protection, the older Level 4 SAPI plates, weighing about 2.9 kg (6.4 pounds) each, could stop some types of armor-piercing bullets, but so can the lighter ESAPI, which are more expensive, at $450 a plate, down from $600 several years ago. The XSAPI plate appeared in 2011 but did not offer enough improvements to make ESAPI obsolete. Since 2012 the plates have become a little lighter and cheaper and more nations are buying them for troops and special police.

Weight is a big issue for the infantry, especially when operating in tropical climates. Troops do all sorts of things to save weight, and using the less bullet-proof SAPI plates was just one of them. Thus the SAPI plates remained popular on the battlefield, even as the new ESAPI plates arrived. Many of the SAPI plates were given to combat support troops, who rarely got shot at, but wanted some protection for those occasions someone took a shot at them. These troops, in contrast, didn't mind the extra weight and preferred ESAPI.

All these plates are made of boron carbide ceramic with a spectra shield backing. This combination causes bullets to fragment and slow down before getting through the plate. Occasionally, some fragments will get through, but these are stopped by the layers of Kevlar that make up the flak jackets. The ceramic plates require a manufacturing process that uses, and produces, a lot of toxic chemicals. As a result of this, much of the production has moved to China. The “flack” jackets have been around for decades and just used layers of bullet and shell resistant fabric to stop pistol bullets and shell fragments. Many police and even soldier still just use a flack jacket.

The success of the plates plus frequent attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan led the U.S. Army to try and get enough plates for all troops in the combat zone, not just those in infantry units. This was more of a morale issue than anything else, as non-infantry troops are most frequently exposed to bombs and RPGs. Fragments from these weapons can be stopped by the flak jackets without the plates. But morale is important, so the army hustled to get enough SAPI plates for everyone. The U.S. military has spent over $12 billion on various types of SAPI, ESAPI and XSAPI plates since 2001. These plates first became available in the late 1980s but it wasn’t until many combat veterans confirmed that the plates worked did more troops get them.

It is not known what type of SAPI plates the Chinese are using but the purchase of this type of protection for their infantry shows the extent to which China has modernized their ground forces. Much of the new Chinese weapons and gear is of similar quality to that found in the West. This was something the Russians were never able to do during the Cold War.

That’s because the Chinese military does not, as in most communist police states, get all their military gear from state-owned and operated firms. No, as part of the economic liberalization implemented in the late 1970s, the military was encouraged to get the most (and best) for their money by soliciting items from multiple, mostly privately owned and highly competitive companies. Chinese and foreign customers were both sought as customers for this gear.

China began modernizing its army in the 1980s, an effort that was long overdue. By the end of the 1980s China had (at least on paper) motorized all of its infantry divisions. Before that, many infantry marched, or took the railroad, while some of their heavy equipment was still moved by horses. In effect, in the early 1980s, most Chinese infantry units were equipped like Western infantry were in the 1930s. By the 1990s more infantry divisions were getting armored vehicles and by 2012 many infantry units were getting a third generation of armored vehicles, or IFVs (Infantry Fighting Vehicles). This makes them mech (mechanized) infantry. All the vehicles were Chinese made, and often Chinese designed. So was all the other new gear.

This army modernization included new uniforms and combat gear, including two generations of new assault rifles. Military PR people made sure all this new stuff got plenty of coverage in the media. It was quickly discovered that all this new gear was very popular with most Chinese, who had seen their military regarded by foreigners and Chinese alike as antiquated since the 19th century. Now Chinese troops looked as spiffy and menacing as their Western counterparts. The Chinese were proud and civilians could buy many of the new military items. In China collecting modern military items became fashionable and popular.

Patriotic Chinese, as well as foreign military gear collectors, are increasingly being serviced by Chinese entrepreneurs who are taking advantage of the fact that most Chinese army military equipment (except weapons and some electronics) is also available on the civilian market. Once these entrepreneurs saw how eager Chinese were to buy army uniforms, field rations (like U.S. MREs), patches and all sorts of odd bits of equipment, they began offering the stuff on eBay for the international market. There they found more collectors (or just curious eBay shoppers) than they anticipated. Chinese manufacturers have increased production of some items just to deal with this new civilian market. As a result, both Chinese and foreign collectors are seen as another market and that market is being serviced.

Bulletproof plates were supposed to be only for military and police. But once China began manufacturing them they were widely available on the black market. Chinese weapons have long been available to foreign governments and, in some cases to well-financed criminal and terrorist groups with access to the weapons black market.




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