This report, the seventh and last in the Super Soldier series, covers findings of the Center for a New American Security’s study on dismounted soldier survivability. This report is in response to a study conducted for the Army Research Laboratory to identify future concepts and technologies to improve soldier survivability and effectiveness over the next 20 to 30 years in order to identify high-payoff science and technology investment areas. While the primary audience for this report is the Army science and technology community, the report’s findings and recommendations may be of interest to a broader group of stakeholders, including across the Army, the Joint Force, and the wider defense community. The full series can be found at cnas.org/super-soldiers.
Soldier survivability is a function of protection and other relevant operational factors, such as situational awareness, mobility, and lethality. Throughout history, helmets and body armor have protected soldiers from injury but often at the cost of increased weight, reduced mobility, and reduced situational awareness. These tradeoffs remain relevant today.
Current body armor systems have proven their value in combat, but have three major shortcomings:
— Current helmet designs are not intended to protect the brain from blast injury, a significant gap in soldier protection. This protection gap stems in part from a lack of understanding of the primary mechanism of brain injury from blast waves.
— The weight of torso body armor diminishes soldier mobility and performance. Current torso armor systems are over-designed for the ballistic threats soldiers actually face in combat, adding unnecessary weight and hampering overall soldier survivability.
— Despite their weight, current body armor systems still leave vulnerable parts of the body, such as the face and head, exposed to ballistic threats. Adding more armor is not feasible, however, without significantly lighter armor or augmenting soldier strength to carry more weight.
In the near term, there are steps the Army can take to modestly improve soldier survivability by optimizing body armor and helmet design. This includes improving protection in key areas such as mitigating blast-induced brain injury, and reducing weight in other areas such as torso body armor, increasing mobility.
In the long term, emerging technologies such as robotics, exoskeletons/exosuits, and human enhancement have the potential to dramatically improve soldier survivability. In some cases, these technologies have the potential to fundamentally change a 3,000-year-old dilemma for foot soldiers in war: Their weapons and armor are limited by what they can carry into battle. The Army is already pursuing some of these technologies, but other areas lack investment and leadership.
Finally, while soldier survivability and protection are generally considered in the context of enemy threats, environmental hazards can pose threats to soldiers as well, sometimes even from friendly equipment. DoD studies have found that blast exposure from firing heavy weapons such as the Carl Gustaf recoilless rifle, even in training, is associated with short-term cognitive deficits.
Additionally, DoD studies have found higher rates of concussion and post-concussion associated symptoms among individuals with a history of prolonged exposure to low-level blasts from breaching and shoulder-fired weapons.2 While further research is needed, there are concrete steps the Army can take today to improve soldier safety.