The Army plans to begin using an improved combat helmet in the fall that greatly improves resistance to rifle ammunition, surpassing the capabilities of the Advanced Combat Helmet now in use.

The new Enhanced Combat Helmet will appear similar to the Advanced Combat Helmet, according to Col. William Cole, project manager of Soldier Protection and Individual Equipment. The Marine Corps is also purchasing the helmet.

"If you hold them in your hand, you'd have a tough time telling the difference, other than the relative thickness," Cole announced to the media on Feb. 2. "The ECH is a little bit thicker, also about an ounce to four ounces lighter depending on the size. But it's really a huge leap ahead forward in terms of head protection capability."

During testing, he said, the helmets did so well that a new test system will need to be developed to evaluate their effectiveness at protecting a soldier's head from fragments.

"The data we're getting from the prototypes was even better than we hoped," he said. "We had hoped for a 35% improvement over the ACH in terms of ballistic protection, and it's way better than that."

With smaller fragments, the lab was unable to determine a "V50" rating — the determination of the velocity needed for 50 percent of fragments to penetrate a test material.

"In this case the test guns they had couldn't shoot fragments fast enough to penetrate the helmet," Cole said. "We don't know exactly what the V50 is, but we know it's better than anything we've seen before. We're going to have to build stronger test guns to figure out exactly how good it is."