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As with so many other areas of military equipment, experience gained over the past nearly two decades of intensive combat around the world by western militaries has seen significant changes in personal protection-related areas. In the past it seemed to be assumed that protective equipment such as body armour was nice to have, then combat experience came into play and nice to have suddenly became an essential piece of equipment.

Combat experience provides the metrics for the development of operational requirements and the solutions that meet those requirements. Ongoing R&D stimulated by military requirements, as well as civilian-based R&D provides new materials and, often, new thinking that can be applied to current and future military needs. If one compares the quality, functionality and even the weight of body armour in 2001 to what is available today, it is obvious that immense progress has been made. In terms of protection though it not just about body armour though, helmet design has advanced dramatically in the same time period. The British Army used the Mk IV steel helmet for over 20 years, yet in the modern era (since 2005) it has introduced three different new helmet types each of which offers increased protection and better ergonomics.

Under Project VIRTUS the British Army introduced an advanced integrated body armour, helmet and integrated load carriage system. Also acquired as a part of VIRTUS were ballistic glasses, goggles and a visor system. Eye protection is now regarded as an essential part of soldier protective system requirements. (Photo: UK MoD)

There are limitations on the level of personal protection that one can equip a soldier with, one key takeaway from all of these recent combat operations is that we are overloading the troops on the ground. Too much weight reduces mobility, increase fatigue and risks injury. However, even a minimal increase in weight can deliver a significant boost to protection in critical areas. While there has been much emphasis on improved body armour and helmets, there has also been improved understanding of the need to provide effective protection for eyes.

A scenario from Afghanistan; a vehicle-based patrol drives into an ambush, an IED is detonated and the patrol vehicle subsequently finds itself in a hole caused by the blast and surrounded by a cloud of dust and muck. The patrol vehicle was designed to mitigate the effects of such an IED strike and the crew have survived the blast, the fact that they were wearing body armour and helmets has protected them against fragments and debris, and reduced concussion effects. More importantly they were wearing protective eyewear, had they not then the fragments from the IED and all the particulate matter generated by the blast could have blinded some or all of them.

Change the environment and the risks still exist, for example a patrol in an urban environment comes under fire and hostile rounds striking a building generate fragments and clouds of particulate matter. Abrasions to the eye caused by foreign bodies and lacerations to the eyelids are common problems encountered in these environments. Eye injuries can lead to temporary blindness and at worst to permanent loss of vision. Hence the logic of equipping soldiers with ballistic eye protection.

The Gentex Corporation Ops-Core Mk1 performance protective eye-wear system was introduced in 2019. These might look like a very sleek pair of glasses, but they feature a strong metal frame and multiple potential lens options including ballistic protection and Advanced Laser Eye Protection (ALEP). (Photo: Gentex)

There are other threats to confront where eye protection has an important role to play, light and heat being a case in point. Light could be accounted for by lasers or generated by explosions and fires, with heat resistance also important to protect against burns for example. Chemicals also present a threat, these could include fuels, cleaning agents, solvents, acids and, of course chemical agents. Biological threats include viruses and bacteria, bodily fluids and a host of other contaminants. Confirmation of the importance of eye protection is evidenced by the importance placed on eye protection as part of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) utilised by medical personal and others during the current Covid-19 outbreak.

When the British Army introduced an advanced integrated body armour, helmet and integrated load carriage system as a part of the VIRTUS programme, also included were ballistic glasses, goggles and a visor system. The ballistic glasses acquired were the Revision SAWFLY model, it should be noted that Revision divested themselves of their eyewear business, selling the business to ASGARD Partners, a New York-based private investment company in October 2019. The inclusion of eye protection as part of VIRTUS, which was based on the lessons of British Army combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, illustrates how understanding of threats to the eyes has grown, leading to recognition of the need to take action to minimise the threat.

David Saw