South Korea’s Liquid Body Armor Is Scandalous
Had the military not stopped this shady deal, 300,000 troops would have received faulty vests
In 2007, the South Korean military became seduced by liquid armor, a new technology which promised to save soldiers from North Korean bullets. In theory, the experimental armor could even block armor-penetrating rounds from the AK-47.
But in 2011, South Korea suddenly halted its liquid armor project. It turned out that the armor wasn’t ready, and that a secret deal between the manufacturer, Samyang, and an official within the Ministry of Defense conspired to deliver the armor below the military’s requirements.
In exchange, the firm offered “bribes and re-employment guarantees,” Newsis reported on March 23 and summarized by NK News.
Most body armor is Kevlar, a synthetic fiber, which is often combined with ceramic inserts for even stronger protection. Liquid armor, however, is made from a mix of silica particles suspended in polyethylene glycol and layered within sheets of Kevlar. Think of the “liquid” as a kind of gooey plastic.
When a fast-moving bullet makes contact with the mixture, the silica reacts and hardens into a wall. Not only is liquid armor more flexible than Kevlar, it’s stronger.
Above — an analogy to liquid armor is cornstarch on a speaker. The vibrations cause the liquid to thicken. Photo via Wikimedia. At top — South Korean marines during an amphibious assault exercise. South Korean Ministry of Defense photo
The driving force behind the shadowy deal was an attempt by Samyang to monopolize the liquid armor market in South Korea, according to NK News, a website focused on North Korea which also tracks developments south of the DMZ.
Besides the corruption, inspectors discovered that armor-penetrating rounds still punctured the armor during testing, according to a report from the Defense Ministry’s Board of Audit and Inspection. That’s outrageous. Had the deal continued, soldiers in a potential future conflict with North Korea would die because of faulty body armor.
NK News noted that “Samyang would have provided more than 300,000 failed units to the South Korean military until the year 2025, at a cost of 270 billion Korean won,” or about $240 million.
It’s unclear if the scandal raises questions about liquid armor generally. It could have just been the specific version produced by Samyang.
There are other liquid armor projects around the world in stages of development. BAE Systems has developed one, as has Poland’s Military Institute of Armament Technology. But no army has adopted them for regular use. One problem is that liquid armor combined with Kevlar is actually … quite heavy.
Heavier than Kevlar alone, in fact. For soldiers, every extra pound of weight matters.