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In search of the next generation of military textiles

October 1st, 2020 / By: / Feature

The U.S. military continues the hunt for breakthrough textile products.

by Glenna B. Musante

In March of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic began sweeping the globe, the search for vast amounts of textile personal protective equipment (PPE) became a major focus of the United States government and its military. In response, the U.S. textile industry rushed to fill a sudden flood of urgent requests for millions of units of medical PPE.

But behind the cloak of that activity, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has maintained a steady focus on finding innovative materials and fibers needed to clothe and protect U.S. warfighters for more traditional battles. 

An Army paratrooper secures equipment after an airborne operation at Rivolto Italian Air Force Base, Udine, Italy, June 24, 2020.

Wish list

A group called Program Executive Officer (PEO) Soldier leads this mission for the U.S. Army. PEO Soldier engineers are constantly searching for textile innovations, but successes are incremental, and the availability of textile products delivering full-spectrum functionality for all environments is still to be achieved. 

Based in Fort Belvoir, Va., PEO Soldier’s Product Manager Soldier Survivability group works with private industry and R&D organizations, such as the Combat Capabilities Development Command Solider Center (also known as Natick), to find and develop textiles engineered to enhance soldier mobility, safety, survivability and success against opponents in every imaginable environment.

Dr. James Zheng, the former director of technical management for PEO Soldier and the organization’s former chief scientist, remains at the forefront of the military textile frontier as a consultant to industry. From his perspective, several issues are trending in the search for next-generation military textiles. 

High on that list are lightweight, multifunctional fabrics that inherently combine durability with a full spectrum of functional qualities, including insect repellence, microbe resistance, breathability, water repellence, fire resistance, ballistic resistance, multispectral protection, smart fibers for physiological monitoring, plus comfort and ease of maneuverability.

It’s a long list and a frustrating one as well, he says, explaining that at this point, no one fabric can do it all. PEO Soldier and other military textile procurement groups have to make choices. Finding new textile technologies that hide and protect warfighters in the field is a high priority.

Marines patrol through grassy terrain during platoon attack range training as part of Exercise Fuji Viper at Camp Fuji, Japan, June 23, 2020. Fuji Viper focuses on sustaining individual and small unit proficiency and decision making. Photo: Marine Corps Cpl. Savannah Mesimer.

High-tech camouflage

Imagine a mountainous desert terrain in the heat of summer, in a location that offers no apparent cover. Warfighters in the field, tasked with a potentially deadly mission, could be standing in the middle of a barren landscape with no place to hide, except inside a Humvee, which hardly blends into the terrain. Or does it?

In the distance they may hear the sound of drones getting closer, and they know with certainty the drones are equipped with radar, thermal detection technologies, cameras and smart bombs. But what if the fleet of drones just passes overhead, not detecting the warfighters, their vehicle or their camp? They simply fly away, continuing their search. 

This is the type of perilous setting U.S. soldiers have faced for nearly two decades with the wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. But a textile technology generally referred to as multispectral signature management is providing a new level of high-tech camouflage protection that makes soldiers and their gear disappear to the naked eye, as well as to heat-seeking infrared detection technologies and radar.

Several manufacturers are active in this space, including Saab, the Swedish company best known in the U.S. for the cars it used to manufacture. According to press materials and content from the Saab Group website, Saab has a large global military division that sells products to more than 50 countries, including the U.S. 

In addition to jets and early warning systems, Saab has developed a wide range of textile multispectral signature management systems designed to camouflage camps, vehicles and individual personnel from a variety of “hostile sensors.”

Drones are increasingly used in war theaters for surveillance, but a textile technology referred to as multispectral signature management is providing a new level of high-tech camouflage. In this photo, Lance Cpl. Kaleb J. Kolb (left), an intelligence Marine, and Capt. Benjamin F. Sutphen (right), Golf Company Commander, both with Battalion Landing Team, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, prepare to launch a drone during a boat raid exercise. Photo: U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Brennan Priest.

Signature management systems, such as those from Saab, represent a new generation of highly engineered textile cover for soldiers and special forces in all types of terrains. Signature management apparel, gear and vehicle covers shield warfighters from view through the use of materials engineered to mask an individual’s thermal signature (body heat), make a soldier and his or her gear invisible to radar, and blend a soldier and gear into a setting and/or deflect light in a way that blurs or interrupts visual detection.

At one time, technologies such as these were the stuff of science fiction, but they are now used widely by militaries around the globe.

What we do and don’t know

Many U.S. and European companies are either not discussing their products due to signed nondisclosure agreements with various governments or have pulled once-public multispectral products off the shelf. Only a few in this arena are promoting their products, including Saab. The company’s Mobile Camouflage System (MCS), for example, is engineered to make soldier encampments or vehicles such as Humvees invisible to the unassisted eye, as well as to a variety of surveillance technologies, including radar, thermal signature, visual and near infrared detection. 

The Saab Barracuda adds multispectral camouflage to vehicles and is typically paired with a Saab ARCAS, which is the military acronym for Advanced Reversible Camouflage Screen. In addition to a variety of terrain-specific camouflage patterns, both offer signature management protection. 

SAAB Group’s vehicular Mobile Camouflage System (MCS) in desert camouflage pattern is equipped with the company’s proprietary signature management capabilities. Such systems represent a new generation of highly engineered textile cover for soldiers and special forces in all types of terrains. Photo: Saab Group Media.

FibroTex, which is based in Israel, opened a plant in Kentucky in mid-2019 that manufactures signature management systems for the U.S. Army and its Special Forces. According to press releases and marketing materials from the company’s website, its signature management products and systems are tailored to specific settings. 

A product that FibroTex calls its “Sniper Camouflage Tent,” for example, provides protection from a broad range of infrared technologies, including short wavelength infrared (SWIR), medium wavelength infrared (MWIR), long wavelength infrared (LWIR), near infrared (NIR) and also radar. All of the aforementioned technologies see things that humans cannot, such as gasses, variations in body heat or mechanical heat, and energy.

Ideally, “multi” spectral camouflage will conceal a soldier and his or her gear from any form of thermal, visual or radar detection, but some fall short, Zheng says. Nevertheless, the technology behind the development of fabric-based multispectral camouflage systems is highly proprietary, and in high demand in military circles. 

A July 2020 U.S. DoD requisition (Notice ID W911QY-20-S-0020) for project proposals to work with the military developing mobile camouflage systems “for multiple platforms” is an example of the U.S. military’s ongoing demand for this type of textile technology. The project involves working with Natick to develop ultra-lightweight camouflage net systems (ULCANS) to wrap over vehicles and provide “signature suppression throughout the entire spectrum,” including NIR, SWIR, MWIR, LWIR and radar.

Customized camouflage

Although fabrics that mask a soldier’s heat and electronic signatures from a variety of sensors is essential, standard camouflage fabric is still a crucial component of military apparel. But that, too, is being updated with colors and patterns designed to help soldiers blend into a variety of terrains. This includes woodland, desert, urban and arctic setting camouflage patterns and apparel systems. 

However, developing different apparel systems for different settings often means trading off one functional capability for another, depending on the demands and risks in that environment. For example, says Zheng, breathability and insect repellence (also known as vector protection) are essential in the Army’s new jungle uniform. The standard fabric used to make a soldier’s general issue uniform is typically half cotton, half nylon. The fabric combination used for the jungle uniform is roughly 57 percent nylon and 43 percent cotton, which leads to higher breathability and quicker dry times. 

Zheng said fire resistance and signature management are more important for the Army’s desert uniform. But no new fibers have been invented that can provide all of the functional qualities the U.S. military is looking for, and making trade-offs continues to be a challenge for the military.

“Indeed, the technologies of fiber have been improved, but [are still] far from enough to meet the military’s needs,” he says. 

A soldier is outfitted in a jacket made of Gore PYRAD®, a flame-retardant, self-extinguishing laminate material. Photo: W. L. Gore & Associates Inc.

The next iteration

As Zheng notes, you cannot change an atom, outside of a nuclear reaction. However, many companies in the military textiles space have R&D groups dedicated to stretching the capabilities of new molecules made by those same atoms as far as science will allow.

W. L. Gore & Associates Inc., known for the invention of GORE-TEX® fabric from expanded polytetra fluoroethylene (ePTFE), has invested heavily in material science R&D and new patents over the years. GORE PYRAD® flame-retardant (FR) laminate is one result of that work. 

More than fire resistant, GORE PYRAD is a self-extinguishing fabric technology with applications on the battlefield, as well as the oil and gas industry, where arc flash fires are a hazard. Applied as a laminate, GORE PYRAD meets the manikin flash fire test (ASTM F1930) and arc flash test (ASTM F1959), yet has the waterproof, windproof and breathable qualities for which Gore is known, according to information from Gore. 

The challenge now at Gore is to continue developing new iterations of products in a way that calls for fewer functional trade-offs. With an FR laminate such as PYRAD or one of Gore’s new insulation materials, this would include lighter, more comfortable product technologies, says Justin Haynes, Gore’s defense performance fabrics sales lead for North America.

“We also see a need for a combination of new, multiple functional qualities while reducing weight, improving breathability and maintaining durable performance,” Haynes adds.

Invista’s Cordura® TrueLock™ is another example of a multifunctional fiber with fewer tradeoffs. An extension of the Cordura brand—known for its abrasion resistance, tensile strength and overall durability—TrueLock is inherently infrared (IR) protective, says Cindy McNaull, Invista business development director. 

She adds that TrueLock fiber provides excellent color uniformity and lot-to-lot color consistency, resists color loss after UV exposure or washing, and is made from high-tenacity nylon 6,6 multifilament fiber that is solution dyed, locking the color in at the molten polymer extrusion level. The result is a highly durable, yet versatile fiber than can be used for both apparel and gear, including backpacks and ballistics vests. 

Both Gore and Cordura are adding sustainability to the R&D mix, as they introduce increasingly desirable versions of their signature materials and fabrics.

Josue Sierra, integrated marketing communication manager for the Fabrics, Defense & Workwear North America division at Gore, says the company’s fabrics division is committed to minimizing its environmental footprint. 

“As a division, we apply certified sustainable manufacturing standards, such as OEKO-TEX®, bluesign® and ISO 14001,” says Sierra. “When designing new products, we consider all stages of the product’s life cycle, cradle to grave.”

McNaull says TrueLock fiber offers environmental benefits: the process to make it uses less water and energy and produces fewer carbon emissions. “As such, Cordura TrueLock technology is a key component of our brand’s sustainability platform and aligns with our focus on conserving resources, reducing emissions and increasing the utility and durability
of our products.”

An ongoing need

Zheng says the military’s search for newer, better, lighter, stronger and
more effective multifunctional fabrics will continue. When the pandemic is over, the world will remain a perilous place. The development of textiles engineered to support combat mission success will continue to march ahead at a steady drumbeat. 

Glenna B. Musante is a textile science writer based in Raleigh, N.C. (linkedin.com/in/glennamusante). 


SIDEBAR: PPE for chemical and biological hazards

Army Spc. Airrell Casey, left, helps Spc. Makerita Luani remove a chemical protective suit during training at Breitenwald Training Area near Landstuhl, Germany, Jan. 22, 2018. Casey and Luani, both assigned to the 39th Transportation Battalion, trained on chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological hazards with the Army Reserve’s 773rd Civil Support Team. Photo: Army Lt. Col. Jefferson Wolfe.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) that’s designed to combat chemical and biological agents also remains at the top of the Department of Defense’s textile procurement list. 

“The demand for military PPE is constant. The military purchases PPE every year, regardless of whether there is a war or not,” says Dr. James Zheng, the former director and chief scientist of PEO Soldier. “However, the volume or dollar amount of military procurement is difficult to predict … due to uncertainty of the federal budget, inventory fluctuations and the possibility of new and better PPE availability.”


SIDEBAR: Strong as…silk

Monster Silk® from Kraig Biocraft is spun by lines of transgenic silkworms and composed of a unique combination of spider silk protein and silkworm silk protein. These genetically engineered spider silks are significantly stronger and more flexible than commercial-grade silk. Photo: Kraig Biocraft.

Manufacturers in the military apparel space are working hard to make the most of the materials and fibers that exist, but breakthroughs are needed to address the textile challenges that have not yet been met. 

One such challenge is the search for a super-strong silk that can be grown commercially at a scale large enough to provide millions of apparel units to the U.S. military. Certain strains of spider silk are soft enough to wear comfortably, yet they have the tensile strength of steel. 

Potential applications include antiballistics as well as underwear comfortable enough to wear every day, yet potentially strong enough to protect a soldier’s upper legs and groin in the event of an explosion. Kraig Biocraft Laboratories Inc., based in Ann Arbor, Mich., has taken a lead in the development of commercial spider silk for military applications.