Infantry: Getting The Boot In Afghanistan

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June 24, 2013: Twelve years of combat in Afghanistan have forced the United States to develop several generations of combat boots for troops fighting in the rocky hills, freezing cold, and scorching heat found there. Every two or three years a new boot design was created and issued. Each generation of boot had fewer problems and the latest iteration (the HWMCB, for Hot Weather Mountain Combat Boot) has generated the fewest complaints. The HWMCB has a lot of little tweaks to the previous design with the biggest difference being that the new boot is 200 gr (7 ounces) lighter than the last one.

Two years ago the U.S. used a very quick competition to select a new hot-weather combat boot for troops in Afghanistan. This search took only a few months. The selection previous to that took two years and resulted in a splendid new combat boot for combat troops in Afghanistan. There was one problem. The boot was built with cold weather in mind. Not surprisingly, during Afghanistan's very hot weather season this boot left feet too hot and quite uncomfortable. Thus the race to find a hot weather boot. So for the last five years troops go to Afghanistan with two pair of boots, one for each of Afghanistan's two seasons (one is very hot, the other is very cold, and in between each of these main seasons there is a few weeks of deceptively mild weather for which either boot will do).

In 2011, the army selected the Belleville 950 Combat Mountain Hiker as the new combat boot for troops in Afghanistan. The Belleville 950 had a stiffer and 20 percent thicker sole, designed to ease foot strain and increase traction for troops crossing broken (often rocky) terrain while carrying typical heavy combat loads (over 30 kg/66 pounds). The upper portion of the Belleville 950 was water resistant leather. The Belleville 950 was not suitable for full time use because of the stiffness. So troops continued to use their current, less stiff and more padded, combat boots. But when they headed out into the hills they tended to wear their Belleville 950s.

When the Belleville 950s got worn during the hot weather in Afghanistan two years ago the heat problems became apparent. The army promptly sought out a boot as sturdy as the Belleville 950 but cooler in hot weather. Two candidates were selected. One was a warm weather version of the Belleville 950 (called the 990), while the other was a similar design was a militarized version of the Wellco Hybrid Hiker. Together, these two manufacturers delivered over 60,000 pair of the warm weather boots within a year.

This use of a commercial boot design is nothing new. Over the last decade the army and marines have changed their attitudes towards combat boots. Instead of trying to design boots themselves, the military has recognized the superior design of commercial boots created for hikers, mountain climbers, and outdoor activists in general. This has resulted in a new generation of combat boots that are more durable, and comfortable, than earlier generations of combat footwear.

Looking for boots particularly suitable for Afghanistan is nothing new either. Five years ago, for example, SOCOM (Special Operations Command) bought 10,000 pair of boots designed to survive use in Afghanistan after discovering (as early as 2001) that Afghan rocks tend to tear boots up. The U.S. Army desert boots, used without problem since their first major workout in the 1991 Gulf War, rapidly fell apart in Afghanistan. By early 2002, soldiers were complaining that the boots were useless after a few months. The problem appeared to be that the boot soles and heels were built to deal with soft sand. Afghanistan has a lot of sand but it also lots of sharp rocks, which tear the boot bottoms up. Apparently, the boot did not get extensive testing in rocky desert areas (which are not as common as mainly sand deserts). Deserts have long been a major problem for developers of military equipment.

The troops have long sought their own solutions, quickly buying every brand of hiking and "assault boots" (for police and SWAT) out there. These cost $100-$150 a pair. Bates was one of the more popular brands being bought by the troops, and the U.S. Marine Corps turned to Bates for a new desert boot. SOCOM had Bates create the "Tora Bora Alpine Boot." SOCOM wanted a boot that could handle the rocks, as well as the temperature extremes in Afghanistan.

The Internet played a major part in the suddenly rapid development of new boot designs. Most troops are on the Internet and many participate in online message boards, listservs, or chat rooms where new discoveries can be rapidly talked about and evaluated. The news is distributed quickly and widely. The military procurement bureaucracies have to respond to this because the troops can also blitz Congress with tales of shoddy equipment. The bureaucrats hate that, so they now pay much closer attention to what the troops want.

 

 


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