Seminar: Learning from combat operations

28 May 2012

Alan Hepper of DSTL provided a fascinating insight into the complex challenges of designing personal and protective equipment for military personnel.

He stressed the importance of the relationship with the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham. Feedback from clinicians and researchers who work closely with wounded personnel provides vital guidance when analysing information

It is the collaborative work with RCDM and QEHB which helps generate many of the outputs of DSTL in this area.


He began his presentation by explaining a conceptual series of layers around each individual to assess the threat of injury.

The outer layer is defined as “don’t be there”, identifying the ideal situation of avoiding any dangerous situation as the best way to avoid injury.

Moving inwards towards the body, subsequent layers look at being seen, targeted, hit, penetrated, injured and killed.

The latter three are known as the inner three layers and are the crucial elements from a medical perspective as they relate directly to physical injury for the individual.

Protecting the protection

Mr Hepper then outlined the importance of understanding the mechanisms and consequences of protecting these layers.

Three key elements need to be understood:

  • the threat posed by the energy imparted to the body by an impact
  • the subsequent effect on the body of this energy transfer
  • the consequences for the body

One output from this is to shape the treatment for an injured person, but the output dictates the significant steps for designers and engineers:

  • Define the protection
  • Design the protection

A common language

DSTL’s Biophysics Group brings together engineers and clinicians and an important step in developing protective equipment is establishing a common language for understanding the above issues.

Once these two disciplines have developed that understanding, they can look at how to define the physiological effects, the necessary treatments and therefore possible protective measures.

An example of this being successful is the shape of modern armoured vests used by British military personnel. These have been designed to provide extra protection for the liver area because research and feedback from clinicians showed injuries to the liver produced particularly serious consequences.

Explosive effects

Significant work has been done on understanding and negating the effects personnel of explosions.

Typical detonations involve a series of threats to individuals, beginning with the shockwave and including shrapnel and other material, as well as crush and burn injuries, impacts from being thrown, and exposure to toxic materials.

The form of energy causing these injuries must be understood and protected against.

Incident analysis

A major part of the work done by DSTL is analysing the results of incidents in which personnel are wounded or killed.

DSTL engineers are involved in investigations after any death or serious injury, often working closely with military clinicians, Military Police and the Forensic Pathology Service.

Protective equipment which has been damaged in these incidents is returned to DSTL for analysis, and sophisticated modelling is used to match the findings with internal and external wound patterns.

This leads to changes in the design, manufacture and education on such equipment.

Multidisciplinary approach

Mr Hepper stressed the importance of a multi-disciplinary approach to the initial design of protective equipment, as well as ongoing assessment of its effectiveness.

Clinicians and engineers work together closely to assess and model injuries, and this is the underpinning principle that has defined the success of the protective systems developed by the Ministry of Defence.