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Infantry Loads Take Toll on Troops, Hamper Tactics

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.

Disparate Needs

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.

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