Defence Procurement International – June 2022
Interview with NP Aerospace CEO James Kempston
Armoured To The Teeth
by Anita Hawser.
You put NP Aerospace body armour, combat helmets or a bomb disposal suit on, and you’re ready to head straight into battle, or run a marathon. Either way, the company says it goes the extra mile to ensure soldiers are well-protected and return home safe to their families.
Packed neatly in a box at NP Aerospace’s factory in Coventry, are hundreds of its ultra-lightweight body armour plates, covered in distinctive camouflaged-patterned carrier vests, waiting to be shipped off to any one of the 40 countries it sells to.
The company has supplied over 200,000 body armour plates to NATO and Allied Armed Forces, and its body armour has even found its way to Ukraine, as part of supplies to Ukrainian soldiers. Within five weeks of the war starting in Ukraine,” James Kempston, NP Aerospace’s CEO, says it delivered 5,000 sets of body armour. “The war in Ukraine has shown how effective an armoured soldier is on their own,” he says.
Handing me one of the finished products from the box, just so I can feel how lightweight it is, I jokingly ask him whether this is a souvenir for me to take home? But Kempston opines: “That means one less person is protected.” NP Aerospace’s body armour is designed, he says so “soldiers can put it on and go straight into battle.”
When you’re in the survivability business like NP Aerospace is — it also supplies combat helmets shields, bomb disposal suits and vehicle armour — attention to detail is everything. Every piece of body armour or combat helmet that comes off the production line must not only end up in the hands of a bona-fide soldier or law enforcement operator, they must also meet stringent standards — including ones NP Aerospace sets for its own products, as well as those set by the industry — and ballistic testing. “A lot of armour manufacturers test their products once at the beginning and they might never test it again,” says Kempston. “But one hundred percent of all body armour and combat helmet batches we make get destructive and non-destructively tested. We go further than the minimum.”
The company’s combat helmets are subjected to what looks like some pretty intensive ballistic testing. “We test our helmets against 10 different types of fragments — from a small 9 mm handgun to high speed fragments.” Combat helmets are tested at increasing velocity, Kempston explains, showing me a helmet with holes in it from where the fragments tried to penetrate it. “We have a high level of quality control. We go above and beyond as we fulfil a lot of Special Forces’ contracts, so our products are designed to be used in rugged environments.”
If the company’s combat helmets or body armour don’t perform as expected when it comes to protecting the soldier on the battlefield, then the company’s reputation is on the line. Every now and then Kempston says he gets feedback from customers letting him know he and his 200 plus-strong team at its UK and Canadian operations are doing something right. “One of the Generals in charge of a contract we are delivering, said to me recently, ‘Your [Osprey] body armour saved my husband who was shot.’ Our product helps bring soldiers back to their families.”
NP Aerospace, which was formerly part of Morgan Advanced Materials until a successful buy-out led by Kempston in 2018, supplied more than 100,000 Osprey body armour plates and over 200,000 Mk 6 and Mk 7 combat helmets for British Army operations in Afghanistan. Its body armour was much lighter than previous iterations as it used polyethylene instead of heavy metallics, which reduced the overall weight of the plates by more than 2kg.
“A couple of kilograms less means soldiers can manoeuvre more quickly,” Kempston explains. “You also see enhancements in other things that the soldier can carry — more supplies and equipment. It means they’re not using all that weight just in body armour.” But a reduction in weight doesn’t mean less protection. Crack mitigation technology the company developed means the armour is better able to absorb the impact of multiple shots, which prevents it from cracking as the energy is dissipated. Soldiers love the company’s body armour so much, that one former Para recently ran the 250 km Marathon des Sables in Morocco, wearing a 10 kg kit including heavy-duty composite ceramic body armour – two plates front and back — from NP Aerospace.
The company has even commenced R&D concept work on a new form of body armour specifically designed to fit the body shape of female soldiers. Currently, some female soldiers may be less protected than their male counterparts, as body armour, which must conform to certain NATO standards, sometimes does not fit them as well due to their body shape. Work in this area is still ongoing, the company
says, but it’s all part of a strong ‘human factors’ approach that seems to seep through everything NP Aerospace does, from helmets and body armour, to bomb disposal suits and protected vehicle platforms.
On the bomb disposal side, its sixth-generation 4030 ELITE Bomb Disposal Suit, was awarded NIJ 0117.01
certification to the US National Institute of Justice Public Safety Bomb Suit standard. NP Aerospace is one of only two manufacturers in the world to have received such a certification. The suits, which are hand-stitched on industrial-strength sewing machines — the fabric is so tough that a normal sewing machine
won’t even penetrate it — at NP’s Coventry factory, feature spine protection at the back, which is specified by the NIJ standard, but in the front, it also includes a patented frontal armour plate, with a curved telescopic design, which deflects blasts away from the body and critical head and neck area.
“That’s not a spec requirement,” says Kempston, explaining that one of the major risks to bomb disposal experts is decapitation. “Another advantage of the suit, is that there is enough flexibility to accommodate an operator looking under vehicles for bombs.” It provides 360-degree coverage, says Kempston, even under the armpits and groin area where there is usually no protection, but where bomb fragments can find their way in. “It’s one thing meeting a specification, but we certainly don’t want someone to get injured in one of our products. So, we’ll put things in that we and operators think are best practise and should be included.” The bomb suit has also been put through the wringer in various test chambers where it is exposed to extremes of temperature, humidity, sand, as well as chemicals. “There’s a reason EOD suits cost as much as cars,” says Kempston. “They really are a system of systems.”
NP Aerospace — the NP part of the company’s name stands for National Plastics (in the 1920s it was part of Courtaulds, which produced the first Bakelite spinning box), and the aerospace comes from the fact that is used to supply seat backs to airlines — doesn’t just protect soldiers or bomb disposal experts. It also boasts a long history in protected vehicle platforms. In 1992 it produced the world’s first fully composite armoured vehicle, the Snatch Vixen Land Rover, which was designed and fielded in Coventry for operations in Northern Ireland.
The vehicle was based on a Defender 110 chassis. NP Aerospace added a lightweight patented composite rear body shell, front bulkhead with cab floor, and doors manufactured from pressure formed fibreglass and resin to protect against bullets and ballistic fragments. But in Iraq and Afghanistan, the vehicle was no match for the IEDs and roadside bombs planted by insurgents. That resulted in the company being awarded a contract by the UK Ministry of Defence to armour the Cougar family of patrol vehicles, including the Mastiff, Ridgback, Wolfhound and Buffalo, acquired by the MoD as part of an Urgent Operational Requirement. NP Aerospace applied applique armour to the outside of the Mastiffs, and spall armour to the inside of the vehicles to supplement the proven ballistic performance of the base platform.
Building on the success of its work for the Ministry of Defence during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not only did global defence companies look to NP Aerospace for vehicle armour solutions. In January 2019, the UK MOD awarded NP Aerospace a £63m Protected Mobility Engineering & Technical Support (PMETS) contract, covering its fleet of 2,200 Protected Mobility Vehicles up until 2029. Programme partners include Atkins (Systems Safety), ITS (Integrated Logistics Support) and HORIBA-MIRA (Vehicle Engineering & Test Services). The PMETS contract is designed to deliver the highest level of frontline protection for the Armed Forces by driving continued improvements in safety, efficiency, and innovation across land platforms.
Under the banner of the PMETS contract, in May 2020, NP Aerospace scored other contracts, worth £7 million, as part of an Urgent Capability Requirement to re-engineer the Ridgback and Mastiff platforms for the British Army’s Operation Newcombe, which is part of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation mission (MINUSMA)in Mali. Independent suspension systems were fitted to the vehicle, incorporating Ride Height Control, along with upgraded driveline, steering, braking and central tyre inflation systems. With his ‘human factors’ hat on again, Kempston says the new suspension system substantially improves the ride comfort of the 30-tonne Mastiff off road, so much so, he says, that you could pull up to Starbucks and order a coffee without spilling it.
“The improved mobility and operational performance prolongs the life of the vehicle. It’s far more capable and able to traverse previously inaccessible offroad terrain. Soldiers are not exhausted and fatigued, which makes them more effective.”