WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Jan. 3, 2011) -- Army and Air Force researchers are continuing to work on how better to fit female Soldiers with more comfortable form-fitting body-armor plates.

The Army is studying unisex armor plate designs, while the Air Force is investigating female-specific geometries. Teams from both services are using male and female torso curves from 3-D surface scans for front/back and side plate shape concepts.

Originally introduced with Interceptor body armor, the current front/back ballistic plate shape known as the enhanced small arms protective insert or ESAPI, was designed for male Soldiers. Those designs have been maintained during the evolution of body armor and the deployment of the improved outer tactical vest.

"By all measures, the body armor system has been very effective in protecting Soldiers," said Lt. Col. Jon Rickey, product manager for Soldier protective equipment at Program Executive Office Soldier. "However, comments from the field indicate some female Soldiers are not being fit well with the current ballistic plate shape."

Rickey said that since fiscal year 2010, alternative male and female torso ballistic plate shapes have been studied with particular emphasis on fitting female Soldiers. But he said challenges remain in retaining ballistic performance with curved plate geometries. Tests have shown conformal ceramic armor doesn't meet Army ballistic performance standards.

Brig. Gen. Peter N. Fuller, PEO Soldier commander, wrote in an email that the Army had started procuring and distributing smaller front/back and side hard plates to accommodate small-sized Soldiers.

"As we continue to research this area, we are also evaluating a conformal undergarment for women to better interface the hard plate to their bodies," Fuller said. He also said that while commercial conformal body armor is available, it doesn't meet Army performance requirements.

Female Soldiers at Army Europe have tested gender-specific plate shapes. While the results showed the prototypes fit female front torso shapes better than the ESAPI, the strong front curve tended to dig into the area below the collar bone. Rickey said the Air Force Research Laboratory will refine female-specific plate shapes and continue human factors evaluations.

"We anticipate at least one or maybe two more rounds of geometry design and fit evaluation in fiscal year 2011 that will include tests on female and male Soldiers for the unisex plates from Natick Soldier Research Development & Engineering Command," Rickey said.

The general also added a female Army Combat Uniform in 13 sizes is presently under evaluation across the total force with a completion date of May. Initial results are favorable from women Soldiers, he said. Helmets and nape pads to better accommodate women with longer hair tied up in buns are also in the works and expected to be available this summer.

The Army is now approximately 14 percent female, though the Army has only recently moved away from a one-size-fits-all equipping strategy, Fuller said.