May 10, 2009:
This month, the U.S. Army is conducting tests, in the Arizona desert, using 35 paratroopers and four new body armor designs. The new protective vests weight 24 pounds each, compared to 31 pounds for the current vest. The 35 paratroopers will run around and get a sense if the four new vests are suitable for combat.
Meanwhile, an infantry battalion in Afghanistan is being equipped with the lightest substitutes the army could find for body armor, packs, boots and other gear, while simply leaving some stuff out entirely. A lot of this stuff has already been adopted by the Special Forces, where the troops, and eventually the brass, heard about it. All this resulted in twenty or more pounds, depending on the mission, being removed from the soldiers combat load. The effectiveness of the battalion will be monitored, along with the injury and casualty rates. The troops (including officers and NCOs) will also be interviewed, to get a better idea of just what happens, good and bad, when the weight is reduced. After all that, the brass will decide how far to go in reducing the load permanently, and going for even more cuts.
The biggest, and heaviest, problem is body armor. Although the latest armor offers better protection, it is heavier and bulkier, thus inducing fatigue and hindering mobility. This often leads to battlefield situations where a less tired, and more agile, infantryman could have avoided injury. Military and political leaders usually do not appreciate this angle. But the troops do, as it is a matter of life and death for them.
Senior commanders are under a lot of pressure to keep friendly casualties down, so they tend to insist that the troops wear all their armor all the time. Despite this, some subordinate commanders look the other way when troops shed their armor temporarily to get some needed speed. The new protective vests have a quick release feature, that makes it easier to get the vest off, and back on again.
Many soldiers and marines point out that the SOCOM operators (Special Forces and SEALs) will sometimes go into action without their protective vests. Again, that is done because completion of the mission is more important than covering your ass when a reporter goes after you for "unnecessary casualties." Many of the troops are willing to take the risk, because they believe, for example, that taking down a sniper when you have the chance, is worth it. If you don't catch the guy, he will be back in action the next day, killing Americans. SOCOM also has lighter armor, and gear in general. With everyone on the Internet, the buzz on this puts pressure on the brass to let the regular infantry have the same goodies the SOCOM commandos use.
Currently, the lightest load carried, the "fighting load" for situations where the troops were sneaking up on the enemy and might be involved in hand-to-hand combat, is 63 pounds. The "approach march load," for when infantry were moving up to a position where they would shed some weight to achieve their "fighting load", is 101 pounds. The heaviest load, 132 pounds, was the emergency approach march load, where troops had to move through terrain too difficult for vehicles. As in the past, the troops often ignored the rules and regulations and dumped gear so they could move, or keep moving.
In Afghanistan, the problem is made worse by the high altitudes (up to 5,000 meters) the troops often operate at. The researchers found that in Afghanistan, even though the infantry were in excellent physical shape, troops would sweat nearly 20 ounces of fluid an hour while marching at high altitudes in bright sunlight in moderate temperatures. That meant more weight, in water, had to be found to keep these guys going.
A lot of the weight carried is essential stuff. Weapons, for example. The Army saved two pounds in the 1960s when they switched from the M-14 rifle to the M-16. A lot of weight was saved in ammo carried as well, because a hundred M-16 bullets weighed two pounds less than a hundred M-14 ones. Troops usually carry 200-300 rounds of rife ammo with them. Plastic canteens replaced metal ones and lighter sleeping bags showed up, as well as lighter clothing. Lighter food (pouches of MREs instead of cans of C Rations). But heavier stuff was added, like the 17 pound "Interceptor" bullet proof vest and the heavier Kevlar helmet. Special Forces troops often go into action without body armor, and keep the load under 40 pounds. But that's only in those situations where the Special Forces calculate that speed and achieving surprise are worth more than the protection the vests provide. Most troops do not have that option, but they do need less weight on their back to remain competitive with the enemy they fight in rural Afghanistan.