Even though it seems like the numbers of women in the military are increasing worldwide, the fact is that their governments don't always succeed in protecting them. When it comes to bulletproof vests for example, women have to wear smaller sizes of the male version, which are never an exact fit and can even hinder them in action.
The good news is that the Romanian army's Centre for Scientific Research in CBRN Defence and Ecology is trying to fix that. After putting quite a bit of effort into convincing the army that we didn't want to make fun of their work, I visited the research centre's headquarters to meet the head of their laboratory Simona Badea, and find out exactly how difficult it is to design a bulletproof vest for women in Romania.
VICE: It seems like the Romanian Army is doing its part in promoting gender equality.
Simona Badea: That's true. Although I am a woman and a civilian, I work in the field of ballistic protection and I have a PHD in Defence from Explosives. I've been working in research for 23 years.
What are the steps in designing a bulletproof vest for women?
In the first stage we established what the most common sizes in the army were. The measurements were taken using a 3D scanner, brought by our partners from the National Research and Development Institute for Leather. Stimpex – the only company that produces bulletproof vests in Romania – takes care of the fabrication.
We made vests for three of five sizes. We tested them on 150 women from the Technical Military Academy, and we will also be doing this with the women in the Army's general headquarters. A lot of them having been active in military operations in other countries.
So you're not just making a prototype.
No, the business plan that we attached to the project implies that the vests have to be ready for production. The vests are funded by the National Programme for Research, Development and Innovation – not through the Ministry of Defence, like the papers claimed.
We, as army workers, take a more practical approach because we want the finished product. Researchers usually want to write papers about stuff like this, but our goal is also to reap the benefits of research.
When did you start making bulletproof vests?
We started making vests here in 1992, using an Israeli model. When the soldiers were off for their missions, an increased level of security was demanded in the theatres of operations.
We used Kevlar vests, with a 3A protection level, after a standard of the American Department of Justice that protected you from pistol ammunition only. So, we had to switch to level 4 security, which have ceramic plating that protects from high-speed ammunition and fire. Our soldiers left with some pretty heavy vests.
And, although they never weighted more than 15 kilograms altogether, some issues came up: the fabric was bad, and the plates were straight and uncomfortable. We listened to their observations and kept improving the vests: changed the anatomic shape of the plates and added MOLLE combat belts that could be interchanged. We made the last modification in 2012, when the soldiers went to Afghanistan with the new vests.
How did you get to the idea of developing bulletproof vests for women?
All around the world, vests are made for men, regardless of all the modifications they've received over time. Americans have development programs for a female vest, but it's just a prototype, although women account for 14 percent of their soldiers. They say that women should just get vests in smaller sizes, but it doesn't work like that – their body types are different. We asked the women who were deployed on missions, because the ones from the Academy that came in for measurements only got to wear them during training. The vests are tight on the chest and loose around the waist. They're uncomfortable and make different arm gestures inconvenient.
The vest can be fastened on the inside and adjusted over the waist, but they're still way too loose around the waist, just like an oversized belt. We are trying to change the vest's ergonomics, without changing the level of protection. And the new vest won't be more expensive, because it's only a different design and not a different fabric.
Are there any other fabrics for bulletproof vests other than Kevlar?
Yes, the Americans are working on their dragonskin system, which comes with titanium plates, but they apparently they found that the plates straggled from the vests because of the temperature changes in the field. There are other types of polymers and ballistic polyethylene, but these can only be used when mixed with Kevlar, because, in case of fire, polyethylene burns faster and Kevlar blows-out on its own. Kevlar remains the most viable solution.
When will the vests be ready?
According to the program, we have to come up with results next year. It's a two year project that should be finished in June 2016, when we'll test the product in a shooting range.
How do you think it will compare to our allies' vests?
In 2005, we received a video from Afghanistan, in which a bunch of soldiers were testing bulletproof vests with all sorts of weapons they had in hand, and out of the American, Polish and Romanian vests, the later proved to be the best. The Americans were using the Interceptor vests back then, which were very light but also much too short. After they shot them, they came up with an improved version. Nowadays, we follow the method extract rule. Namely, if you don't need the collar, you take it off, and if you want to extend the protected area, you shield your arms, legs and even your pelvic area. The most important thing to remember is that no vest is indestructible and nothing can protect you from rocket launchers or other heavy duty weapons.