ICW Rifle Armor Plates - A Solution in Search of a Problem?

Buyers of body armor often encounter ICW rifle plates - plates designed to worn In-Combination-With (ICW) soft body armor. These plates are worn in front of a ballistic soft armor vest or other soft armor backers to meet their stated threat rating. Generally, ICW plates are ceramic plates but ICW polyethylene plates also exist. The idea behind an ICW plate is that the supporting soft armor can be used as a functioning part of the plate during a ballistic impact, thus allowing for the plate itself to be built lighter than an equivalent stand alone plate.

On its face this is an interesting proposition, primarily for those users who wear soft armor regularly such as patrol officers. In theory these users would have their standard soft armor vest that they regularly wear alongside a rifle armor solution that would be superior in terms of weight and thickness compared to using a set of equivalent stand alone rifle plates on top of their soft armor. However, modern ICW plate options suffer from several problems that prevent most of them from being a particularly appealing option regardless of the circumstances of the user.

An RMA 1155 level IV stand alone rifle plate. Stand alone plates such as this make up the vast majority of the commercial rifle plate market.

Primary users of ICW rifle plates -

ICW plates are intended primarily to provide a light weight, thinner rifle plate option to users who regularly wear soft armor regardless of what they're doing. Typical examples of such users are many law enforcement officers and soldiers in most western nations. In particular, the U.S. military has opted to use ICW rifle plates as part of any standard issue armor package to most soldiers. The SAPI and ESAPI are ICW rifle plates, designed to function with IOTV spec soft armor backing the plates.

The problem with modern ICW rifle plates -

In the past ICW plates were a more competitive option than they are now. One primary reason for the gradual downfall of the ICW plate as a common product is the mixing of plates to soft armor backers. In years past it was common for ICW plates to state a specific model of soft armor be used as the backer. When building the plate to be used only with one specific soft armor package the performance is known and guaranteed as long as that soft armor package is used. The primary issue with this however is simple marketability - when selling a plate that is only designed for use with a specific soft armor model then the end user must purchase both that rifle plate and that soft armor package. If the end user already has a preferred soft armor package that is not the one the plate requires as a backer then the user will either most likely pass on purchasing the plates or they must buy the manufacturers recommended soft armor package alongside the ICW rifle plates.

To expound on the matter, the exact reason some ICW plates recommend a specific soft armor backer is because the combined performance of the armor systems cannot be guaranteed with untested soft armor packages. One soft armor package may provide passable BFS (Back Face Signature, the indentation recorded in the clay backer behind a piece of armor during testing) depths, a different one may fail. This is why many ICW plates made now state simply that they can be used with any IIIA soft armor, because the plate was designed to perform adequately with any IIIA armor package. The problem this modern trend in ICW plates led to though is that most ICW plates now are overbuilt for what they are, with most coming close to stand alone level III plates in terms of weight vs. performance. The reason for 'overbuilding' the plates in this way is to allow the use of any IIIA soft armor package - it minimizes the margin between failure with one package vs passable performance with another to zero. This also solves the problem of marketability, though only in one aspect as these 'overbuilt' ICW plates are typically poor competitors against many modern stand alone options.

That said, is the modern ICW plate merely a solution in search of a problem? In this authors opinion, yes. With modern low profile Special Threat plates such as the TenCate 2000SA (to fill concealable rifle armor roles) or advanced level III ceramic plates such as the Hesco 3810 (for lightweight level III plates capable of stopping M855) being available I see little reason to consider most current ICW plate offerings. Few current ICW plates are truly cost vs. performance (weight and protection) competitive, especially when accounting for the cost of soft armor backers if the needed backers or soft armor vest are not already possessed by the end user. Currently, stand alone rifle plates dominate the U.S. commercial market and are most often a superior solution over an equivalent ICW plate based on a cost vs. performance basis.

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