NIJ's body armor research, evaluation, and testing program has several goals including—
Advancing Test Methods
Environmental Impacts. Heat, moisture, ultraviolet and visible light, detergents, friction, and stretching may all contribute to the degradation of fibers used in the manufacture of body armor. Body armor manufacturers design their armor and provide care instructions to minimize the effects of these degrading properties.
Most manufacturers limit their warranties to 5 years. In response to the concerns of public safety advocates about the life cycle of a vest after its 5-year warranty ends, NIJ, through the Technical Support Working Group, is conducting age-regression studies on ballistic panels exposed to simulated aging to measure their protective capabilities.
NIJ is looking for standardized environmental, physical, and mechanical exposure methods for preconditioning soft body armor for standards-based testing.
Nondestructive Evaluation. An effective way to evaluate soft body armor without destroying that armor will allow testing laboratories to identify dangerously degraded armor without requiring agencies to sacrifice potentially usable armor. Ultimately, these test methods could identify changes (in structure, chemistry, mechanical properties, etc.) that might influence armor performance.
Multi-hit Capability. No current standard exists for a vest that can withstand multiple gun shots within a very small target area. To address this need, NIJ is partnering with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Canada's Defense Research Establishment Valcartier to develop a testing protocol and specifications for providing multi-hit testing capability.
Advancing Ballistic Materials
Among the next challenges in body armor production is the production of a lighter weight vest that provides maximum comfort as well as optimal protection to the wearer. Such vests will require soft, lightweight, and flexible ballistic-resistant materials. Those materials must resist the adverse effects of aging, wear, and exposure to various environmental factors (e.g., humidity, moisture, extreme temperature, ultraviolet light). Eventually, such materials could be incorporated into armor designs at threat level IIIA (which provides the highest level of ballistic performance in concealable body armor).
See the Ballistic Resistance of Personal Body Armor, NIJ Standard 0101.04 for a description of the various threat levels.
Improving Design, Comfort and Coverage
Advanced Designs. In addition to using better interior materials, other techniques for improving overall performance and comfort include changing stitching and layering techniques, and improving exterior material properties.
Comfort Through Cooling. Body armor can be very hot, making it uncomfortable to wear and, under extreme conditions, a potential health hazard. A way to help cool the wearer could lead to greater routine use.
Additional Coverage. In firearms assaults on officers, bullets may strike in vital regions not protected by body armor, notably the shoulder, underarm, and the gap between the front and back armor panels. If a bullet strikes close to the edge of the body armor panel, it can slide off the armor panel or backing and penetrate the torso. Developing ways to better protect these areas while still providing a reasonably comfortable piece of soft body armor would reduce these types of injuries.