Can a superyacht’s hull or superstructure stop a speeding bullet and keep an owner, their family and their guests safe?
It’s an age-old cliché – the bad guys open fire, the good guys hide behind car doors, upturned tables, refrigerator doors or whatever else seemingly solid comes to mind; the bad guys spray bullets but the good guys are protected and all is well with the world. However, the reality is slightly different.
I had come to Wiltshire Ballistic Services, a world-leading test and certification centre for armour, with UK-based armour specialists Air Sea Land Group (ASL) which wanted to set the record straight. It was not about playing on fears or advancing paranoia, but rather to expose the misconception that metal equals safety. Imagine, they said, if you were on board your superyacht and someone fancied taking a potshot at you or your family. You might be fooled into thinking that you are safe in your superstructure, protected from assailants by the solid metal walls and panelling and everything else that makes up a modern superyacht. Think again.
I had come to Wiltshire Ballistic Services, a world-leading test and certification centre for armour, with UK-based armour specialists Air Sea Land Group (ASL). Our test was simple. We would fire a standard 7.62mm round of ammunition (the most common bullet in the world as it comes out of the AK47 assault rifle) from 10 metres away at a 7mm-thick mild steel plate, to see what happened. Wiltshire Ballistics’ Ben, an affable chap with a disarming smile, carefully weighed out the charge and made up the round that would be fired from a specially mounted barrel triggered by computer. A warning siren sounded, followed by a loud pop through our ear protectors.
“The test is great to show how the steel put up no resistance to the bullet at all,” says Jonathon Diffey, ASL’s founder and managing director. “There’s a very plain hole straight through, and that bullet would quite happily have passed through all the layers of a yacht structure – the outer skin, aircon ducts, wooden interior finishes – and would have ended up where it shouldn’t.” Diffey is quick to point out that this is not about scare tactics, but about reality. Many superyacht owners take the protection and safety of themselves and their families very seriously, but for those who want additional safeguards it is important to realise that what you think is going to protect you probably won’t.
Many superyacht owners take the protection and safety of themselves and their families very seriously, but for those who want additional safeguards it is important to realise that what you think is going to protect you probably won’t.
“Historically, the industry has always been about flat-panel armour systems,” explains Diffey. “One of our unique selling points is that we are able to mould the armour systems into shapes.” With a background in composites and pattern-making, Diffey has built up an expert workforce with a diverse range of similar skills. The result is that rather than just using flat materials or metal sheets to clad what needs to be protected, ASL can mould its protection to virtually any shape and for any space imaginable. This includes replacing vehicle parts and panels with ballistic protection panels that look completely original or, as in the case of a recent project, integrating their aramids into the lay-up of a GRP boat hull to create a series of bullet-resistant 11m power catamarans.
At the centre of their offering is a series of high-tech materials based on aramids and Kevlar mat. ASL do offer standard steel protection but in most cases those solutions are both impractical and far too heavy. “We try to offer two or three different materials to suit anyone’s weight-to-budget requirement and also to suit the specific application,” says Jack Sandiford Haigh, ASL’s sales director. “As with everything, lighter weight means more expensive, but whereas steel suitable for stopping a handgun bullet would be around 38kg per square metre, the equivalent in Kevlar – when moulded and pressed according to our inhouse-developed processes – is around 7kg per square metre. We specialise in these lightweight composite armours.”
To demonstrate the effectiveness of these bespoke materials, we revisit the Wiltshire Ballistic Services range and this time place a panel of ASL’s Legion Polyethylene material behind the steel plate. Three further rounds are fired into the steel in a triangular pattern – the standard test pattern to meet the internationally recognised BR6 certification for armour designed to stop 7.62mm rounds. The results are impressive – the ASL panel is deformed but the bullets and all fragments are safely encapsulated within the laminated sheets. “The problem with [ballistic armour] steel is that you will often get a ricochet – the bullet will stop dead, but you’ll get fragments coming off, whereas a composite like our Legion Polyethylene is designed to delaminate, naturally slowing the round down and capturing it,” says Sandiford Haigh. “The material also floats – it’s a similar density to water – and it’s also very good at deadening sound and vibration, especially when compared to steel armour.”
For yacht projects, ASL works in a couple of ways depending on whether the yacht is a new-build or looking to add protection during a refit, or whether it is simply adding a system to an existing space, a process known as up-armouring. “Ultimately, within the superyacht environment, our armour is not on display – it’s hidden behind the façade and interior fit-out,” says Diffey. Typically, if integrated from the start the armour panels would be mounted between the steel or aluminium outer skin and the inner finish – the only requirement really is for an air gap (technically called a stand-off) of 25mm to allow space for the material to delaminate and capture the bullets and fragments. “We can also create panels with a very nice room finish if required,” adds Diffey. “In an ideal world, it’s always nice to be there at step one in the design stage so that the naval architects and designers can take into account the weights and strains we need for our armour systems, and also to create the room itself.” This is also important because to give an area true ballistic protection, it’s not just about adding armour to the side walls. As the range test demonstrated, a round of ammunition can pierce several layers of metal and other obstacles, so both the floor and the deckhead have to be taken into account to cover opportunistic angled shots that could come from above or below – for example, from the quayside or a harbour wall when in port.
Typically, if integrated from the start the armour panels would be mounted between the steel or aluminium outer skin and the inner finish – the only requirement really is for an air gap (technically called a stand-off) of 25mm to allow space for the material to delaminate and capture the bullets and fragments.
The implication from this is that it is very difficult to make an entire vessel bulletproof – particularly on the scale of a superyacht – therefore the more common route is to create an armoured space to where the owner and his family or guests can retreat in the event of an attack in order to remain secure until help arrives. This could be the entire master suite, a bathroom or a similar space.
Of course, armouring a part of a superyacht superstructure only makes sense if any relevant glass windows also match the ballistic protection of the skin. “You’re going to see more chemically toughened glass which can give different types of glass composition and hardness which will allow us to get thinner and lighter glass for the same level of ballistic protection,” O’Gara continues. “But on the military side, you are going to see transparent ceramics become more commonplace – we’re working on solutions using transparent ceramics where threats are very high and payload and weight are very important.” This new technology comes with inherent levels of complexity to develop the entire system. There is still work to be done but O’Gara says it is very close to being commercialised.
If this is initially being developed for deployment within the military sphere, it is not hard to see the potential trickle-down to other sectors, and this also opens the door not only for easier implementation on superyachts but also, potentially, on tenders. It is this potential that ties in nicely with projects ASL is already developing with boatbuilders and superyacht tender specialists, and a tour around its facility on the Isle of Wight shows just how this could be brought to fruition.
Originally published by Charlotte Thomas at superyachtnews.com