Bullets, small explosives no match for these vehicles
May 9, 2012
Thefts. Car-jackings. Kidnappings. Assassinations. If you’re a high-profile political figure or wealthy executive doing business in a foreign country, especially one in which the division between rich and poor is vast, you’re vulnerable. In addition to having a security system at your home and a personal security detail that travels with you wherever you go, you need a vehicle that can protect you against an attack. Texas Armoring Corp., a fabricator in San Antonio, has been providing armored cars to foreign heads of state and corporate executives since it was founded in 1997.
When it comes to assessing a metal’s hardness, most fabricators are familiar with indentation testing. A measuring device presses an indentation tool against the metal; the resulting impression is measured to determine the material’s hardness. Common scales are Rockwell, Vickers, Shore, and Brinell.
Some fabricators use a different measure altogether. Trent Kimball, founder and CEO of Texas Armoring Corp. (TAC), San Antonio, is one such fabricator. His concern is more along these lines: Can the metal stop a 150-grain, 7.62-mm (.308-caliber), full metal jacket (FMJ) bullet with a muzzle velocity of 2,800 feet per second (FPS [2,560 foot-pounds of force])?
Whether Kimball’s customer is a politician fearing assassination, a company executive at risk of kidnapping for ransom, or a wealthy person worried about robbery, TAC modifies the customer’s automobile to reduce his vulnerability. In the old days this meant installing bulletproof glass and reinforcing the doors, but these days it takes a more thorough approach.
“Terrorists are much more sophisticated than they used to be. They use explosives and more advanced technology than they used to,” Kimball said.
Kimball would know; his company’s expertise dates back to 1975. That was the year his father started a similar company, which he later sold in 1993. When the business failed a few years after the sale, Trent followed in his father’s footsteps and formed a new armoring company in 1997. It was a leap of faith, because Trent hadn’t worked in any key capacity for his father’s company, but nonetheless he did inherit much of the company’s technical knowledge, business acumen, and fabricating expertise. About 20 percent of the staff at TAC worked for the original company, and his father joined TAC as a business mentor.
In the 1970s the original company had just two armor offerings, one for the Ford® LTD and one for the Toyota Land Cruiser®. The company installed bulletproof glass and reinforced the doors, but that’s about it. Much has changed over the decades.
“We armor every cavity of the vehicle and the floor, the firewall, and so on, creating a cocoon that provides 100 percent protection,” Kimball said.
TAC offers customers four protection levels. The basic level can stop small-arms projectiles such as a 124-grain, 9-mm, round nose (RN) bullet at 1,400 FPS. The second level protects against high-powered rifles such as a 63-grain, 5.56- by 45-mm (.223-caliber) pointed bullet (PB), muzzle velocity 3,070 FPS. The third level shields the vehicle’s occupants from armor-piercing (AP) rounds—typically a 166-grain, 7.62- by 63-mm (.30-06), AP bullet, 2,900 FPS. The fourth level deals with extra-armor-piercing threats, such as a 150-grain, 7.62- by 51-mm (.308-caliber), AP steel hard-core mass (HC1), muzzle velocity 2,800 FPS.
Customers in the U.S. mainly look for a vehicle that can survive a theft attempt carried out with a handgun, Kimball said. Foreign customers face a completely different threat.
“Outside the U.S., most of the crimes involve kidnapping for ransom,” Kimball said. The vehicle has to survive and evade a group of organized attackers armed with high-powered rifles.
TAC strips the vehicle to the frame and turns the passenger compartment into a protected area using glass, steel, and a synthetic material. It replaces the original glass with 2-in.-thick bulletproof glass and surrounds the passenger compartment with ballistic steel, which has a Brinell hardness of at least 500. The steel has a chemical composition which gives it ballistic properties, and plates range in thickness from 1⁄8 to 1⁄2 in., and sometimes more, depending on the threat.
While ballistic steel has exceptional stopping power, it is typically too heavy for the doors of an average passenger vehicle—the hinges don’t hold up well—so TAC reinforces the doors with Spectra Shield®, a layered polyethylene fiber. Spectra Shield® can be pressed and plied to various thicknesses, usually from ¼ in. to 1 ¼ in., depending on the desired defeat level. To help the vehicle survive an attack, TAC also shields the battery and fuel tank (and offers optional radiator protection). The company also replaces standard tires with run-flats, tires with a stiff core that allow a 30- to 40-mile getaway on punctured tires.
Most fabricators would feel at home in TAC’s shop. It uses a 100-ton press brake, plasma cutters, and GMAW machines to fabricate the steel parts and a band saw to cut the polyethylene parts. A big challenge is getting the armor into the limited space available so the vehicle goes back together as it was designed. The goal is to make the car look like a stock vehicle when it’s finished. This might have been easy when the company armored just two models, but these days it puts armor on nearly any vehicle available. It has armored practical, low-profile cars such as the Honda® Accord and, at the other end of the spectrum, the flashy Porsche® Panamera.
TAC doesn’t stop at protection. Performance is critical, and adding 1,200 to 1,500 lbs. of ballistic material doesn’t do much for acceleration and handling. TAC replaces the suspension, brakes, air intake, and exhaust system with aftermarket equipment. Optional upgrades include a supercharger or turbo-charger and a reprogrammed computer chip that enhances the car’s performance.
About 90 to 95 percent of TAC’s vehicles are exported, and it’s not hard to see why. Political assassinations and suicide bombings have been the scourge of the Middle East for decades. In Central America, extortion is common; attacks staged from motorcycles are so frequent that the government of Guatemala banned motorcycle passengers in 2009. Even in Europe, which is relatively peaceful compared to most other areas, mass demonstrations are making many people, both government officials and private citizens, anxious about personal security.
“We saw a market emerge overnight in Greece. In the past two years, we’ve sent 30 to 40 vehicles to Greece,” Kimball said.
Regardless of the location or motivation, violent acts are a fact of life. Companies like TAC give potential victims a chance to survive an attack and shake off any pursuers.