Staying safe behind the wheel
Louis Huijzen explains the different types of armoured vehicles that are commercially available and wthe different applications that they’re used for
Driving can be a dangerous activity; statistically it is more dangerous than flying. In fact, a study done by CNN in 2015 revealed that only riding a motor cycle is more dangerous than driving a car. When thinking about dangers one faces in the car, the first things that come to most people’s minds are drunk drivers, speeding, texting-while-driving, traffic-jam related accidents and dealing with pedestrians and cyclists in the city. However, there is a group of drivers and passengers which need more than the legislation and technologies that help reduce these dangers, such as ABS, ESP, crumple zones and adaptive cruise control. They need the protection provided by armoured vehicles. Military armoured vehicles can look like big brutes, which are as inconspicuous as a shark in a gold fish tank. But not all armoured vehicles are this obviously recognisable.
Many people will have seen armoured vehicles in the everyday life without even realising they were armoured. There is a reason for this, they are meant to blend in! These are the so-called civilian armoured vehicles. Who are the drivers of these vehicles, what are the dangers they encounter and what are some effective ways of reducing these dangers?
Let’s start with the who. They can range from executives to Government officials to special (police) forces to celebrities. Civil unrest, the increasing wealth gap in many societies, political instability and terrorist threats are all reasons for these citizens to give extra attention to their vehicle security.
Some wealthy business people in high-profile positions are kidnap-targets for criminals wanting to hold them ransom. It is not uncommon for them to have vehicles with at least runflat inserts, so they can get away from a dangerous situation, even with their tyre(s) punctured. Embassy personnel can also be vulnerable, both in Europe as well as outside, depending on the foreign policies of their homelands. This means they need to protect not just the real estate of the embassy, but also their fleet of vehicles. In some cases, heavy armour is required to deal with heated opinions of some of the inhabitants of the Embassies’ host countries.
Special (police) forces need state-of-the-art equipment built in to their (heavily) armoured vehicles to help them do their job. Sometimes this requires Radio Frequency Jammers, sophisticated tracking systems and personal protection for when the occupants need to leave the car and engage with their targets. All this equipment adds to the weight of the vehicle, which is why these cars are often big and powerful 4x4s. The increased terror threats in Western Europe has made the use of these vehicles more frequent.
In the countries where embassy staff need protection, Aid and Development Organisations and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO’s) are also at risk, but the dangers are often bigger and more frequent because their field of work is outside the walls of base camp or HQ. As some of these host countries are (practically) considered war zones, these workers operate in the same geographical areas as soldiers of NATO or the UN, and therefore also need to think about how they can safely get from A to B without always having the luxury of paved roads. Heavily armoured 4x4s can be crucial companions in their daily activities.
According to the Aid Worker Security Report 2014, 2013 saw a peak in serious injuries and casualties among aid workers (171 and 155 respectively). More than half of the incidents causing these injuries and casualties were related to coordinated ambushes or the now frequently used roadside IED attack (Improvised Explosive Device), stressing the importance of proper protection of these people who are risking their lives to help improve the lives of others. These numbers are expected to rise.
By the way, armoured or not, the vehicles of humanitarian aid and development workers are white, indicating they are neutral and friendly, so they can be distinguished from military vehicles operating in their periphery. Also, for humanitarian aid & development workers, it is not just the white colour which helps set them apart from military forces. The commercially available vehicles have a much friendlier look than the often aggressive shapes and forms of armed forces, which we will take a closer look at later on.
So, we’ve considered the potential users of armoured vehicles, but what kinds of protection are available to these users and what kind of threats are they meant to protect against?
The lowest level of protection starts with cost-effective shatterproof windows. They are made shatterproof by means of a see-through adhesive film on the inside of the window, preventing it being smashed while a car is parked or waiting at traffic lights. It can also help against car break-ins and can help stop laptops or tablets being stolen during dinners in a restaurant downtown. Every protected car should also have runflat inserts installed, enabling flat-tyre mobility in an emergency.
The next level is protecting against hand guns, by installing aramid and/or composite panels in the doors, and reinforced & thicker window frames to accommodate ballistic glass. This is more expensive, and therefore less accessible for most civilians, but does not weigh very much and is most often installed on strategically important locations of the vehicle.
Up to this stage the protection is pretty straightforward, and although still specialist work, most of the vehicle remains intact, including brake systems, suspension and wheels. Protection against (semi-)automatic guns and light explosives can be obtained by adding ballistic steel and thicker and better glass to the vehicle, but this requires a more structural approach to converting the car. The entire frame needs to be reinforced to support the added weight. A light-armoured SUV will weigh approximately 4,000kg, with a light-armoured limousine weighing up to 3,500kg. This is the area where suspension, brake systems and wheels of the original vehicle are really reaching or even exceeding their limits.
Roadside bombs, machine guns and hand grenades demand a very carefully engineered armouring package, which requires stripping and rebuilding the vehicle from scratch. Thicker and higher-grade ballistic steel and glass, overlapping doors, specially designed heavy duty wheels and runflat inserts, heavy duty brakes, self-sealing fuel tanks and stronger suspension are all added to or replaced on the vehicle. Underneath its skin, it has been completely overhauled, but the outside should still look the same to the untrained eye.
The increased risk in the field and need for protection means that the weight of an armoured SUV will increase to between 5,000kg to 5,500kg. Adding technological and personal protective equipment, the weight could reach as much as 6,000kg, where limousines will beef up to 4,500 kg. That’s more than double the weight of a comparable (unarmoured) car you can buy in the showroom of your local dealership.
A different category of vehicle, but a little less inconspicuous, is used by the Cash in Transit (CIT) industry. These converted delivery vans and (small) trucks transport valuables such as cash, bonds and jewellery. These are often very clearly marked and are not meant to blend in, so they stand out in case of a highjack or theft. Sophisticated tracking systems, access control systems, heavy armour and innovative marking systems are supposed to make sure that these vehicles are an unattractive target for those shopping for a free holiday. Their drivers and operators are well protected by means of armoured cabins and the valuables often get visibly or invisibly marked in case of a robbery. This means the cargo is literally tainted and the criminals cannot easily use it without being compromised.
To touch briefly on military vehicles, these are mostly intended for the battlefield from the very first design. This means they don’t look anything like “normal” vehicles, are much bigger than their commercial cousins and have angular shapes and small windows, making their appearance quite aggressive.
If they need to withstand land mines etc, their bellies will be high above the ground and have V-Shaped hulls, to deflect the energy of the explosion away from the passengers. Some will have rosters or lattices on their hulls to limit the damage of RPGs.
They have special multi-piece wheels and special rubber runflat inserts, all-wheel drive and Central Tyre Inflation Systems for added traction whilst driving offroad. “All-wheel” in this context means, “more than four”, as many of them have 6 or 8 wheels.
Although these are military vehicles, some are finding their way to the streets of Western countries, with some armies “donating” some redundant units to local police forces, which can choose to use them for their special forces or arrest teams. The advantage of blending in is quickly lost, though, when these vehicles are used.
To summarise, armouring vehicles is a specialist job. Although the vehicles often look just like “normal” vehicles, every part is carefully engineered and tailor made for its purpose. Extensive testing and certification is demanded both by the purpose of the vehicles (protecting people inside) and by the organisations purchasing them. The dangers threatening the people doing their important jobs all over the world are evolving, causing the protection standards and materials & technologies to improve along with them. Whether it is the door hinges, the rims, the windshield or the brake system, there is more than meets the eye, and the innovation continues.
Louis Huijzen is General Manager of TSS International B.V. and has been part of the family business, which specialises in vehicle security and mobility, since 2010.