Q&A working for the Ministry of Defence

Materials World magazine
1 Dec 2016

Natalie Daniels speaks to Debra Carr CEng FIMMM about her time working at the Ministry of Defence and how materials in helmets and body armour are evolving. 

Tell us about your background.

I started off doing a Higher National Diploma in Materials Technology at the University of Sunderland, UK, and stayed there to study a BSc (Hons) in Materials Science. I really enjoyed my final year project, looking at the stress corrosion cracking of glass fibre reinforced polymers, and my supervisor suggested I look into a PhD to continue my interest. I was successful in gaining a PhD in the Chemical Engineering department at the University of Birmingham, UK, looking into the compression testing of carbon fibre reinforced polymers. I then applied for a position within the Ministry of Defence, UK (MoD) in the Stores and Clothing R&D Establishment and was offered a position in the protection section, looking at fabrics and composites for future body armour and helmets for the British Armed Forces. I stayed at the MoD for eight years before deciding I wanted to move to a research environment, which led me to my postdoctorate at Imperial College London, UK, to further understand the chemical and mechanical degradation of paintings on canvas. I moved to New Zealand shortly after to the University of Otago in the clothing and textile sciences department. I have now moved back to the UK and am working as a Reader in Impact and Armour at Cranfield University (Defence Academy of the UK), coming full circle in my career and am now back working on body armour and helmets.

What has been your biggest career highlight?

I have been really lucky to have had such a diverse career and the opportunities to work in a lot of different disciplines. There are a number of things I have been particularly proud of. Firstly, some of the work I did during my time at the MoD contributed towards body armour and helmets that the British Armed Forces are still wearing. Also, the work I did in New Zealand, which involved characterising plant fibres in weaving and working with various institutions and museums. But, the thing I most enjoy is teaching at the Defence Academy – it is a privilege to be teaching members of the British Armed Forces and be able to work with them as they further their research. That is the most rewarding part. 

How have you seen the materials and technology evolve in defence applications?

Specifically looking at body armour and helmets, a lot of the materials that we used 20–25 years ago are still being used today, such as ceramics and textile fibres, both in soft armour and composites in helmets. But, the manufacturers of those materials have made year-on-year changes and improvements. Although we are still using similar materials, the properties have been improved. It gives us the option to provide the end-user with a piece of kit that has the same mass, but with a much higher level of protection, or the same level of protection at a reduced mass. The average solider in Afghanistan carried as much as 60kg in mass with clothing, other equipment, body armour, helmet, weapon and ammunition – if we can reduce that mass then it reduces the burden on the solider. 

What are the biggest challenges you have witnessed in the industry?

Bureaucracy within the MoD. I can't speak for what it is like working in the civil service now, but during my time it definitely was focused on bureaucracy. There were also a lot of opportunities. I was very fortunate in the time period I worked at the MoD, as there was more research funding around and, if one could come up with a good research idea and justify it and present it well, then you would have had a good chance of getting funded for some really exciting research projects. 

Within teaching, there are continually cutbacks with research funding. I worry about what is happening with humanities subjects worldwide – we seem to be losing value in this area. I wonder if we in society are valuing those people that work in these research areas. Every day is a new challenge with teaching and it is finding a new way to explain a difficult concept in a clearer way.

Are there any particular areas of defence and body armour where the properties have improved significantly? 

In terms of the end items, we now have a combat helmet that is lighter than most used 20 years ago and has a significant increase in ballistic protective performance. It has all been improved by changing the properties and the combination of materials. We now have a ceramic plate that provides improved protection from from high-velocity (rifle) ammunition and is slightly different to the materials we used previously.

Have safety concerns held back new and advanced materials coming through?

Not at all – there has always been this desire within the MoD to find the best possible protective equipment for the Armed Forces. I think that the Ministry has always been willing to be more innovative with new ideas. There is blue-sky research going on and advances in new materials being considered all the time. In the past, people have looked into biomimetics (now referred to as synthetic biology), additive manufacturing, considering the possible implications of nanotubes and nanotechnology, shear-thickening fluids have also had a lot of press for use in ballistic protective equipment. A lot of these materials are still in the laboratory. You have to be confident about the performance of any particular body armour or helmet that comes into service. You have to be able to understand those materials' properties and failure mechanisms at a high strain rate. 

How could the development of graphene and additive manufacturing impact body armour and helmets in the future?

The issues arise when understanding the strain rate capability of materials. The materials we use at the moment are relatively economic – not cheap, but relatively inexpensive compared with some of the newer technologies. The manufacturing for these materials is also well established, so I think there is reluctance within industry to change that because it takes a huge investment and risk to change how they currently manufacture equipment. The real issue is around the development of these materials and the movement of them from research in the laboratory to actual industry applications – it proves very difficult for the defence industry.

Debra has a BSc (Hons) in Materials Science and a PhD in Engineering. She is a Chartered Engineer, a Fellow of IOM3 and also a Professional Member of the Chartered Society of Forensic Science.
Her research interests include body armour and helmet optimisation, wound ballistics and forensic textile science.