Today’s soldiers and Marines are more likely than ever before to survive major ground combat.
The Army and Marine Corps have worked to develop equipment that offers ever greater protection — from tougher helmets and body army to high-tech equipment that offers the average infantry unprecedented battlefield awareness, accuracy and punch from long-range weapons.
But the services may be reaching a point of diminishing returns. One Army study concluded that while soldiers in 2001 went into combat with an average load of some 82 pounds, that load increased to 110 pounds by last year and is often much higher. These loads are limiting the basic mobility of infantry and there are anecdotal signs that they are suffering unusually high levels of back and joint injuries.
“The two greatest advantages that we have is the skill of our soldiers, and the second is technology. But, as a trade-off, some of that technology is difficult to bear,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. , a former Army Ranger who chairs the Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee.
Some tacticians are beginning to worry that the Army’s and Marine Corps’ risk aversion has created some unintended tactical weaknesses by adding so much weight to each soldier’s kit.
“In last 10 years of war, we were trying to find that silver bullet piece of kit that was going to solve all our problems,” said Col. Jay Peterson, assistant commandant of the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Ga. “About halfway through it, we realized it wasn’t going to be kit. It was going to be the brain that was going to do it.”
Of course, virtually no one questions the need to protect troops in combat, and the payoffs go well beyond individual safety.
“Soldiers require protection to close with and defeat the enemy, conduct effective reconnaissance and security operations, develop the situation through action, and adapt continuously to changing situations,” Brig. Gen. Paul A. Ostrowski, who heads the Army’s soldier initiative, told the House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee.
The trade-offs have come into focus over a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Taliban, for example, have learned to use their own mobility to their advantage.
“That is where you get the physical demands of lugging lots of equipment uphill, downhill, in 100-degree temperature, fighting on mountainsides against people who know the terrain,” Reed said.
Peterson, who helped command a brigade in southern Afghanistan several years ago, said that another part of the Army’s challenge was the complexity of counterinsurgency.
Peterson recalled how one of his platoons was stationed in a valley that was largely peaceful, and the main job was speaking with local farmers and building partnerships.
But he had another platoon in a nearby district where “you have a 10-foot-tall enemy” and are conducting lethal operations.
Under those circumstances, “there is no mutual support,” he said. “There is no main effort. They are all kind of running independently in a province the size of Connecticut.”
These somewhat isolated forces placed immense pressure on enlisted squad leaders, who are tasked not just with engaging the enemy but also not losing any of their own people.
This often meant that soldiers would be asked to carry virtually their entire combat kits to be prepared for anything. Over the years, the kit has grown.
Take, for example, the standard-issue M4 rifle, which was issued on its own in 2001. Today, that weapon is issued to soldiers with a laser targeting device, a day and night sight, a light and a gangster grip.
“So I have taken my 7-pound weapon system and I have made it 15 to 19 pounds with a magazine of ammunition in it,” Peterson said. “It’s not quite that heavy, but after three days of patrolling, it’s going to feel like a ton.”
Add in the ballistic helmet, body armor, perhaps a grenade launcher, water, several batteries, and additional ammunition for crew weapons, such as machine guns and grenade launchers, and soon each soldier and Marine is carrying the equivalent of a 12-year-old child on his back through mountainous terrain for days at a time.
“I distinctly remember the only thing that belonged to me in my pack was my poncho liner, four pairs of socks, four T-shirts and a plastic bag with shaving equipment,” Peterson said. “The rest was military equipment. As we get more and more equipment, sometimes the ‘better-to-have-it-and-not-need-it approach’ is damning because then you are going too damn heavy.”
The Army and Marine Corps have pushed new initiatives to reduce the burden at the squad level.
First, the services are trying to reduce the load through lighter equipment and even special load-bearing robotic technologies. More powerful, longer-lasting batteries also would mean carrying fewer of them.
“On the individual Marine, over a dozen batteries in six different configurations are used at any given time,” said Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Eric M. Smith, who runs the capabilities development directorate at the Marine Corps Combat Development Command at Quantico, Va. “Centralizing and reliably distributing power on a Marine will potentially reduce the reliance upon multiple types of batteries that are currently used in systems and carried in significant quantities as spares.”
Military leaders are also trying to train squad leaders to better process intelligence information and customize their troops’ loads.
“We accept a little bit of risk in some of the soft body armor protection to lighten the load, but that is all based on a risk assessments by the commander,” said David Libersat, the deputy director of the soldier division at the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning.
For example, the Army created a body armor protection level system. This allows commanders to scope the level of protection to each mission. In some cases helmet and protective eyewear is all that is required.
“A little bit greater risk, I need my helmet, protective eyewear and my soft ballistic armor,” Libersat said. “If you raise that up to higher level of kinetic operations, then I have to add my plates. Leaders are able to tailor their loads based on the mission sets that they have. That helps to reduce the soldier’s burden.”
Peterson added, “These young leaders, it is easy for them to say, ‘I have to go on battlefield for three days grab all your [stuff] and let’s go.’ We’re working to change that.”