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Rising to the CBRN challenge for the
modern soldier and first responder

Soldier Modernisation talks with Chris Jackson, General Manager, OPEC CBRNe

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Providing soldiers with the right CBRN protection for the threats they face has always been key, but as with any element of soldier modernisation, keeping up with changing threats, environments and situations means it is vital the soldier’s equipment can do the job. Protection for armed forces, as well as their counterparts in other sectors such as first response, requires a dynamic, innovative approach that works not only to shield them but to allow them to operate effectively.

Within the arena of those designing protective suits, including CBRN suits, recent work has focused on reducing the burden to end users, ensuring they are simultaneously protected yet able to work efficiently. The benefits in reducing thermal burden as well as literal burden are clear and come directly from end user feedback, says Chris Jackson, General Manager at OPEC CBRNe.

“Whenever we've met with major military countries and scientific advisors to those organisations, the feedback is that there actually is a greater threat from thermal burden in terms of numbers and statistics than there is a chemical warfare threat. So, you're actually going to get more casualties in a high humidity, high temperature situation from wearing the equipment than from the threat itself.”

Jackson uses the 7/7 London terror attacks as an example, where first responders and police found themselves in a high-temperature environment on the London Underground system. “Traditional systems create severe heat stress in high humidity and high temperatures. It is debilitating to lose fluids at that rate, and it results in the soldier, police officer or first responder not being able to do their job as efficiently as they would with a low thermal burden suit on. The traditional suits are difficult suits to work in for any length of time.” Add to that the fact that many soldiers are operating in environments with higher temperatures and higher humidity than London and it is clear that creating protective suits that can reduce that thermal burden on the end user is key.

The solution is the creation of a suit system that has higher air permeability, explains Jackson - something that may seem counterintuitive but was proven by expert research at Loughborough University1, published in 2010, which looked at heat gain from thermal radiation through protective clothing with different insulation, reflectivity and vapour permeability. They found that end users using a system with higher air permeability had a lower core body temperature than those using suits that are non-air permeable or had lower permeability.

The need to reduce both thermal burden and literal burden is something OPEC CBRNe has worked on, as well as developing a layered solution allowing those on the frontline to adapt their protective gear to the environment they operate in, says Jackson.

“We've achieved that mainly by suit design and the use of lighter and more permeable fabrics.” Those suits, including the two-piece Kestrel suit - the preferred CBRN garment for the Australian military - are around 30 per cent lighter than conventional suits, helping strike a balance between protection and user comfort. Such suit systems are developed from legacy products designed by OPEC CBRNe’s predecessor, Remploy.

“The legacy is inherited, and we've improved upon that. We've moved those suits onto lighter and better levels in terms of protection and comfort.”

Two-piece Kestrel suit

Two-piece Kestrel suit

One major step included the development of OPEC CBRNe’s Kestrel suit, moving away from the heavy, old protective systems and towards these lighter, more efficient suits, but it continues to innovate based on feedback from its end users, says Jackson. “Every time we put suits into trial with end users when it comes to thermal burden and comfort, feedback indicates ours are significantly better than conventional suits. We hear that repeatedly.”

Developments in protective equipment not only work to improve on legacy systems, but to address new threats and challenges as they arise, explains Jackson. Changes in the requirements from end users have constantly ‘ebbed and flowed’ over the years, says Jackson, but concerns over country vs country aggression in recent years has brought with it new requirements from end users. “Threats previously have been focused on small groups or terrorist groups. Now, when we have personnel from other nations coming into our country and using lethal chemical warfare agents, it makes it so much more important to advance the technology in offering both high protection and end user comfort.”

OPEC CBRNe’s team has also focused on aerosol protection, aimed at addressing newer threats involving reduced particle sizes. “Threats are constantly evolving and the weaponisation of threats of a reduced particle size is a relatively new area of concern. These threats are more difficult to protect against. In response to that, we've developed an air permeable system, which also gives aerosol protection or small particle protection.” The result is the two-piece Kite suit, which is also 30 per cent lighter whilst also providing protection from aerosol threats as well as air permeability for user comfort.

Adapting to threats as they emerge is nothing new for the company, who also developed the Viper Type 4 anti-viral suit in response to a specific request at the outset of the COVID pandemic. The reusable, highly protective coverall was designed to provide lightweight, full body coverage for first responders in healthcare, law enforcement and security operational environments where airborne, particulate and depository pathogen challenge is likely. The Viper provides protection against contaminated liquids, aerosol particulates, blood and blood borne pathogens and, critically, against viruses like COVID-19.

While changes to adapt to ongoing threats can be carried out dynamically, long-term work is also underway to continue the drive to reduce the burden of protective suits - both literally and thermally - and to allow them to be adapted to different environments faced by soldiers on the ground. That includes the development of a ‘layered solution’ that allows end users to adjust their protection up or down depending on the threat scenario.

“It makes sense to create a suit system which allows a level of versatility to match the protection level to the threat. Otherwise, it becomes highly likely that the soldier or end user is over protecting themselves and putting themselves in unnecessarily high heat-stress conditions.”

1 Broede, Peter; Kuklane, Kalev; Candas, Victor; Hartog, Emiel A. den; Griefahn, Barbara; Holmer, Ingvar; et al. (2010): Heat gain from thermal radiation through protective clothing with different insulation, reflectivity and vapour permeability. Loughborough University. Journal contribution.

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