The US Army is planning to purchase 200,000 enhanced combat helmets (ECH), which will, for the first time, be able to protect against enemy rifle rounds.

The new helmets will use an advanced plastic made from a ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene, which provides a higher degree of ballistic protection than Kevlar and Twaron, the fibres used in the current army combat helmet.

Developmental testing on prototypes from four companies is scheduled to begin in the next few months, with the intention of deploying battle-ready helmets by mid-2010.

Soldier Protective Equipment head Lt Col Jon Rickey said that the Marine Corps-led ECH effort began in 2007 when the industry presented samples of the highly durable, lightweight ballistic materials.

“We did believe we had a technological opportunity really for a next generation of materials inside the helmet.” Rickey said.

The US government has allocated a total of $10.6m to the army’s ECH programme, $4m of which was allocated in fiscal 2008 and $6.6m in fiscal 2009.