The U.S. invented MREs (Meal Ready to Eat, freeze-dried food in plastic pouches) in the late 1970s and, although often derided, the MRE was a big improvement over earlier types of battlefield food (usually in small cans). Since World War II, there have been numerous efforts to develop a nutritious, lightweight and palatable combat ration. This is food for troops on the move, under stress, and without any time to stop and prepare a meal, even something like an MRE. As unpopular as early MREs were it was noted that all earlier efforts at developing effective lightweight combat rations had failed, usually because the energy bars, and other attempts, tasted terrible. Troops would use things like rice balls, beef jerky and candy. These were ancient "combat rations," but lacked essential nutrients. The MRE concept proved to be an effective launching pad for all sorts of innovations, like an MRE containing a slice of pizza.
Eventually, as more nations adopted MREs (Japan, until 2016, being the last major holdout) there was a lot more innovation in adapting local food tastes to the MRE limitations. It was long thought that many favorite types of “comfort food” could not be replicated in MRE format. But with more nations working on this, especially those in East Asia (China, South Korea and Japan) the impossible MRE adaptations became a reality. The latest comfort food breakthrough has been pizza. While frozen pizzas have been around for a long time pizza using an MRE format was seen as difficult (if not impossible) to implement. MRE pizza must be freeze-dried and able to last for at least three years in temperatures as high as 35 degrees Celsius (nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit). To the surprise of many the first edible prototype of the Pizza MRE was ready in 2014 and after four years of tinkering and testing the production pizza MRE becomes available to the troops (and civilian users) by 2019.
Pizza is one of those Western dishes that has worldwide appeal and has become an international “comfort food.” Other international favorites were Western gadgets and innovations that made life easier, or at least more interesting. MREs appealed to young people of all ages because of their convenience and, during natural emergencies, MREs were one of the best ways to avoid starvation and malnutrition.
When East Asian nations abandoned canned combat rations in the early 21st century they found that their young troops were quite receptive to exotic alternatives like MREs. Despite that, for decades Japan was able (because of its booming economy) to keep using improved, but still less suited for battlefield use, canned combat rations. Partly this was due to the love of tradition, partly because the Japanese, like most East Asians, are very serious about food and partly because of their post-World War II constitution Japanese troops were forbidden to get involved in wars or peacekeeping operations overseas. Without real combat zone experience, there was no realistic examples of how superior MREs were compared to their older canned counterparts. But now the prohibitions against sending Japanese troops overseas have eased and a younger generation of troops prefer the convenience of MREs, which many had already discovered because MREs are popular worldwide with those who hike or go camping.
Japan was also encouraged to abandon canned combat rations because of the enthusiastic acceptance of MRE type rations by the Chinese and South Koreans, who are also fanatical about their food and managed to make MREs as tasty as the canned stuff. Since the 1990s the Chinese military has dramatically improved the quality of food it supplies to its troops in the field (outside their bases). At the base, there are kitchens and traditionally cooked food. For centuries Chinese (along with Japanese and Korean) troops in the field used rice balls and various forms of preserved (smoked or salted) meat plus whatever they could catch or take locally. By the 1970s China began developing field rations similar to those used in the West during World War II and what the Japanese had long used. This included compressed biscuits (a Western staple for centuries) preserved with sealed plastic (shrink wrap) and some canned items. After the 1970s Chinese food researchers paid more attention to the essential ingredients (vitamins, minerals and the right kinds and quantities of calories) for active military personnel. Since the late 1990s, Chinese military food developers also paid more attention to taste, having noted that some of their previous food items were so unpalatable that troops would avoid eating them. The Chinese also developed special rations for troops operating at high altitudes (Tibet) or for extreme situations where high radiation levels are present. Japanese tourists noted all this and when the Internet arrived after 2000 Japanese troops could follow Chinese military food developments as well. Both Japanese civilians and soldiers began buying Chinese MREs, which manufacturers made available to civilians because of great curiosity and because MREs were useful for outdoor activities and travelers.
Not surprisingly since 2000 Chinese food researchers paid more attention to Western-style commercial MREs (for campers and other outdoors activities) developed in the West. They noted that Western troops tend to use military versions of these commercial products as well. Since Chinese troops don’t have as much disposable income for such products before they enter the military, the army food product developers sought to incorporate concepts for these commercial products into what was made available for Chinese troops. This included special “energy” foods (similar to Western “energy bars”) for aircraft crews (especially those on long flights) and ship crews obliged to stay on duty for extended periods. And soon China also had something similar to the American MRE.
China has also noted that American troops have been receiving some very effective and popular food products since 2010. In other words, combat rations that work better because of efforts to find out what is popular and what is not. Since China got into MREs four decades after World War II they avoided a lot of mistakes and learned quickly and thoroughly from Western experience and from what more advanced Asian countries (like Taiwan, Japan and South Korea) were doing in this area.
The latest U.S. Army combat ration efforts were developed from existing commercial products and guided by suggestions from combat soldiers. Thus the new First Strike Ration (FSR) contains pocket sandwiches (with up to a three-year shelf life), along with a ziplock bag so a partly eaten sandwich can be saved for later. There are two 29 gr (one ounce) servings of Power Gel (popular with athletes who, during a workout or race, need some easily absorbed and digested carbohydrate-based calories to replace expended glucose, also called Energy Gel). There is a HooAH energy bar, with lots of carbohydrates.
The initial First Strike Ration (FSR) consisted of two pocket sandwiches, a HooAH! booster bar, Zapplesauce, sticks of beef jerky, crackers, peanut butter, a dairy bar, ERGO Power Gel beverage mixes, an accessory packet and a package of dried fruit. Also available with the FSR (and separately as well) is Jolt caffeine gum, which provides about the same amount of caffeine as a cup of strong coffee. The exact composition of the FSR has evolved since its introduction in 2007 based on the feedback from the troops receiving FSRs. China has also noted this and the fact that most Chinese troops have access to the Internet and can be called on to send comments to the food developers.
Each FSR contains about 2,900 calories and weighs 340 gr (12 ounces, half the weight of an MRE containing about 3,800 calories.) The FSR is also about half the size of an MRE. For a long time troops who were going to be out and on the move for a few days would field strip MREs to reduce their weight and leave behind stuff that troops didn’t like. This was wasteful and time-consuming. By 2010 the FSR was in mass production and at that point, troop feedback caused some changes in the variety of content. Soon there were nine FSRs each with a different combination of popular items. These combinations changed as user preferences changed. SOCOM and especially Army Special Forces were enthusiastic users of FSR from the start.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Navy had, by 2014, changed the way it feeds its sailors. That was necessary because they were faced with serious problems when feeding its crews on long voyages. This was because traditional Chinese food is time-consuming to prepare and uses more water than Western chow. You can cut corners and provide simple (and unappetizing) meals on short training voyages and get away with it. That does not require much manpower or lots of water but does little for morale. The officers usually get fed better but the sailors expect that. On longer voyages, quality food is an important element in maintaining morale for the entire crew. This was discovered during the first four years that China Task Forces (3-4 ships each) over 4,000 kilometers to Somalia for anti-piracy duty. These ships were away for six months or more and the navy was forced to innovate to keep the food appealing. The solution turned out to be more Western style food. This worked mainly because most of the sailors were young and keen to try Western food. This stuff is still relatively expensive (but very popular) in China, if only because a lot of it relies a lot on meat (burgers and chicken). Chinese officers had studied food service in Western navies and noted that the Western navies were able to use more equipment and automation as well as pre-packaged items to greatly reduce the manpower (and freshwater) needed to prepare attractive and nutritious meals.
All this was seen on the first Chinese aircraft carrier, which has a crew of 2,500 and regularly went on training cruises lasting a week or more. Operating a carrier, especially one conducting a lot of takeoffs and landings, is very stressful for the crew. So burgers, fried chicken, and reheated frozen Chinese dishes are served. This is expensive but it maintains morale and the ability to keep the busy schedule going. The Chinese Army already used pre-packaged foods (MREs) for army field operations. It was found that MREs are tolerated by sailors during an emergency, but during regular operations, they expect better. The new prosperity in China has led to entrepreneurs developing traditional Chinese dishes in a storable form. This has provided the armed forces with a constant supply of new ideas on how to keep the troops supplied with satisfactory food while on the move. And so it came to pass that Japan, as it had done so many times during the last few thousand years, again borrowed something developed in China.
Successful military commanders have severed things in common and one of them is an emphasis on logistics (getting the supplies troops need, especially food). By the 19th century, it was accepted that better prepared and tastier food for the troops was great for morale and made a difference in combat. So MREs, FSRs, instant freeze-dried pizza and other innovations continue to make a difference in combat, even if better combat rations don’t get much respect from anyone who hasn’t benefitted by their presence during a dismal and stressful situation.