Troops back armoured underwear dubbed 'combat codpiece'
The latest piece of high-tech kit due to be issued to all British forces deploying to Helmand already has a nickname. It is known by the troops who have tested it as the "combat codpiece".
The name may be irreverent, but the intention behind the new piece of body armour is deadly serious: to protect soldiers' most important piece of personal kit from blast injuries to the pelvic area caused by the Taliban's roadside bombs.
All those deploying to Helmand are already being issued with four pairs of special anti-blast underpants.
They look like black cycling shorts, but are made from special ballistic material crafted from silk and synthetics, which is ultra-lightweight but can stop or mitigate the effects of most small pieces of shrapnel and dirt travelling at high velocity after a blast.
Although no figures are available, many soldiers wounded by roadside bombs in Afghanistan have suffered severe injuries to the pelvic area, mainly due to the increased use of "victim-operated" roadside bombs, when the weight of a soldier or a vehicle triggers the explosion.
That means that much of the destructive force of the blast is aimed upwards, directly towards the groin and top of the legs.
The protective underpants are known as "tier 1" of the protective system, with the second layer, or "combat codpiece", simply known as "tier 2" by the MoD's equipment boffins.
Some 45,000 pairs of the underpants have already been delivered to Afghanistan, with another 15,000 ready to be issued to deploying troops - and more to be delivered early next year from their manufacturer in Northern Ireland, in an order worth £6m.
The "combat codpiece" comes in camouflage colours, and looks like a bulky pair of underpants which tie on at both sides, which is worn over the trousers.
It can be rolled up and clipped to a belt at the back of a pair of trousers with two velcro straps, and then - when needed on patrol - be pulled through the legs to clip together at the sides to form a protective pouch.
The padding inside the front and back segments offers an extra layer of protection. These will be issued to troops in the early spring, with the contract for 25,000 sets worth £4m.
Col Peter Rafferty, personal combat equipment team leader at defence equipment and support, says that those researching and developing the equipment faced many challenges, not least in creating protection which still allows the soldiers and others in the field to do their jobs without impeding their mobility.
"We are constantly reviewing what we can do on protection for our forces - we never stop, and we'll continue to examine what more we can do," he said.
When out on patrol or outside the main bases in Afghanistan, British forces and others already wear body armour which shields the key areas of the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys, as well as a relatively heavy helmet to protect the head, and blast-proof goggles to shield the eyes from any blast.
However, key arteries flow through the groin area as well, which is an area prone to sweating, so both the blast-proof underwear and pouch had to be made of materials which allow sweat to pass through, rather than adding to the heat experienced by those patrolling in the Afghan summer heat.
The underpants are coated in an anti-microbial agent which protects against infections, and they come in a range of sizes, while the Tier 2 protection is a unisex one-size-fits-all. Both are washable, though forces will have to first remove the extra ballistic protection from inside Tier 2.
Alan Hepper, the principal engineer at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, says many factors had to be taken into account when creating the materials.
"The way silk is woven makes it very strong, with a very high ballistic efficiency. It may sound like an extravagant material, but in ballistic protection terms, it is the best we've found," he says.
"The feedback from medical staff treating the injured suggests that it does make a noticeable difference."
China and Japan used materials made out of silk for their forces' body armour for at least 1,000 years, though it was last used in British protective kit by the RAF during WWII.
WO1 Lee Flitcroft, RSM at the infantry trials and development unit, gamely demonstrated Tier 2 at the MoD to journalists.
He has put the protective kit through its paces during the trials with soldiers, male and female, making them go on 6km runs, take up firing positions or scale a 5ft wall while wearing the kit to ensure that it does not interfere with their ability to work.
"It's had very positive feedback, which was fantastic news," he says.
ABF The Soldiers' Charity, welcomed the new equipment. "The physical well-being of those most at risk always has to be a priority, so any measure that gives extra protection to our soldiers on the frontline is welcomed by us," according to Robin Bacon.
MOD scientists and industry are still working on Tier 3 of the system, which is expected to be issued to those performing the most dangerous tasks such as bomb-detection and disposal. It will cover more of the upper leg and the wider abdominal region, with design trials due to take place early next year.