The U.S. special operations forces don’t leave anything to
chance when it comes to their personal survival gear. They are astute
buyers of tactical equipment and often shun military standard-issue
supplies in favor of more functional, commercial items.
When they are not away on a mission, it is not unusual to find
members of the U.S. special operations forces at outdoor-gear and
sporting-goods trade shows, checking out the latest body armor,
backpacks or combat knives.
“The special warfare community has gone out and bought commercial
equipment, because they know that it’s more functional,”
said Bill Strang, president of Tactical & Survival Specialties
Inc. The company, located in the heart of Virginia’s Shenandoah
Valley, has become a one-stop shopping venue for special operations
and law-enforcement units looking for combat gear that is not easily
found in the traditional government supply pipeline.
TSSI, for example, designed a combat knife that is becoming increasingly
popular with elite combat troops, because it has unique features
not found in standard knifes. It also costs about half the going
rate of comparable commercial knifes, “so the average troop
can afford it,” said Strang in an interview. It is not uncommon,
he said, for members of elite units to dip into their own pockets
to buy personal items, such as knives, helmets, sleeping bags, boots
or specialized rope. Oftentimes, however, a special-warfare unit
purchases equipment that is then distributed to its members.
This survival gear may not seem as vital as a weapon or a night-vision
sight, but it helps provide a certain “comfort level”
to operators who “are going to be out there longer, on their
own,” Strang said. “What I see as an essential item
for my survival out in the field may not be the case for the guy
next to me.”
The special operations community, he said, “will go out and
find what’s innovative. ... Most guys in special operations
own more personal gear on top of all the stuff” that is issued
by their command. “Those are the guys who tend to be a little
more progressive,” Strang said.
Among the most “progressive” pieces of gear sold by
TSSI is a lightweight black boot made by Adidas, the athletic-gear
firm. The boot was specially designed for Germany’s super-secret
antiterrorism teams. In the U.S. special operations forces, said
Strang, “If you are really cool, you have one of these.”
They retail for $249. “SOF customers ask for them, 150 or
200 pairs at a time.”
Strang started TSSI more than 20 years ago as a garage hobby that
eventually turned into a $6 million to $8 million-a-year company.
He expects sales to rise, given the skyrocketing demand—after
September 11—for specialized tactical equipment within the
SOF community, as well as the federal law-enforcement agencies.
Shortly after the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington,
D.C., a number of government officials showed up at TSSI, Strang
said. Representatives from the Defense Department, the U.S. Marshals,
the Air Marshals, the Border Patrol and the FBI “came in and
took just about everything we had.”
The company now is seeking to expand its sales by offering to preposition
equipment for SOF units. Sprang said he can deliver combat supplies
in less than six hours to any of seven major U.S. military deployment
sites at Dover Air Force Base, Del.; Andrews AFB, Md.; Quantico
Marine Corps Base, Va.; U.S. naval installations in Norfolk, Va.;
Camp Lejeune, N.C.; Pope AFB and Fort Bragg, N.C.
Even though the Defense Department has a large logistics supply
operation and many well-stocked warehouses, sometimes SOF units
are told that they have to wait 30 days to get certain items, said
Sprang. By prepositioning equipment at the TSSI warehouse, he said,
they would get what they need within six hours.
One reason why SOF units sometimes can’t get what they want
on short notice is because manufacturers today don’t stock
a lot of equipment. Most companies today operate under the “just-in-time”
philosophy that says items should only be made on order, to keep
inventories low and thus lower the costs of doing business. Strang
often stockpiles items that he knows that the SOF units will need
and are not available off-the-shelf. Every time there is an SOF
deployment, he said, they call asking for things like boots, hydration
systems, survival kits and body armor.
“End users don’t understand that the manufacturers
don’t have it sitting on the shelf,” Strang said. “We
sit on about $1 million worth of inventory [and still] we never
have everything they want.”
TSSI does not produce anything, however. The company works with
a network of 7,000 manufacturers worldwide, Strang said.
In many cases, the work involves a lot more than just ordering
and shipping products. Among the items that are now in high demand
among specialized military units, Strang said, are customized packs
and survival kits.
Survival kits have been around for centuries, but the military
customers never seem to be satisfied, Strang said. They always want
something better, smaller, more compact and more functional.
It can take many months to put together a survival kit or a medical
kit, because of the enormous amount of detail involved. “They
specify the items they want and we have to go out and find them,”
One kit currently being assembled at TSSI is for the United Arab
Emirates special operations forces. Their requirements were so meticulous
that several TSSI employees spent months trying to find manufacturers
of various items. A tiny, oddly-shaped knife, for example, had to
be ordered from a German manufacturer. Other items in the survival
kit include waterproof matches, a candle, a compass, a sewing kit,
a magnesium metal match used to start a fire, a miniature survival
saw, a fishing kit, a signal mirror, a whistle, wire, a condom (used
as a bottle water), special water-purification tablets, a razor
blade, an index card and a pencil. All this, by the way, has to
be squeezed into a lightweight metal box small enough to fit in
a vest pocket.
The UAE special operations forces also have ordered a medical kit
and a boat kit. TSSI expects to assemble up to 2,500 of each kit,
after the customer approves all the pieces.
It took up to 30 to 40 different suppliers to put together the
survival kit, said Strang. Even mundane items such as a pencil or
a candle are hard to find in the precise measurements that the customer
wants. In this case, the pencil came from a provider of golfer pencils.
The candle came from Virginia’s Williamsburg Soap & Candle
Factory, which makes the candles for Colonial Williamsburg.
Custom packs, meanwhile, have become increasingly popular among
special operations units, because they offer creative ways for a
single individual to transport equipment, what Strang calls “a
thousand pounds of lightweight gear.”
Backpacks that can hold ladders are a case in point. Commandos
often carry ladders for entry into the second floor of a building
or for boarding a large ship from a small fast boat. These ladders
weigh about 28 pounds. “We came up with backpacks for all
the different ladders, so [the commandos] can still carry their
weapons and other things,” said Strang.
The company recently designed a medical pack for special operations
field medics. What makes it different from other packs, said Strang,
is that it can be carried in multiple ways: on the back of a rucksack,
strapped around the waist like a fanny pack or by the grab handles.
Many of Strang’s ideas come from visiting trade shows outside
the traditional military market, such as sporting goods, ski, outdoor,
industrial safety, search and rescue. “We are looking for
that one or two items that fit a requirement,” he said. The
vendors are catalogued and included in the company’s database,
“so if someone calls asking for a bomb trailer, we can usually
One of the most prolific sources of novel tips on survival equipment
is the SHOT show, for shooting, hunting and outdoor trades. Strang
is a regular visitor at the show. He looks “for that new little
trick item—a knife, compass, whistle that we think is better
than what’s out there.” He often runs into some of his
special-warfare customers from Fort Bragg, from the Air Force special
tactics units and from federal agencies “who are out there
looking for what’s new and innovative.”
Many companies that make tactical gear market their products to
the recreational industry, Strang said, because there are more recreational
dollars being spent by campers, skiers, hikers than by government
“If I have the greatest hydration system, I probably will
sell a heck of a lot more to people who run, bike and hike than
to the military,” he said. But most companies will “never
turn down the 700-piece order that goes to the military,”
because of the prestige associated with being a supplier to the
The downside, said Strang, is that many companies push the boundaries
of honest marketing by claiming, for example, that they sell “the
official Navy SEAL knife,” because maybe they sold 16 knives
to a single SEAL team. The upshot is that there are dozens of “official
Navy SEAL” knives and watches being sold to the public, he
By the time those products get into the mass markets, he added,
“the operator community already has moved on to the next thing.”
TSSI now has its own name brand (TacOps) for clothing and other
gear. The clothing usually is a slightly modified version of standard
military garments. Some suits, for example, are reinforced in the
knees, or have the hoods enlarged, so they can go over the helmet.
A Gore Tex rain suit was modified by adding a removable fleece
liner, so troops can wear it in both cold and moderate climates.
It has become a popular outfit among Army peacekeepers in Kosovo,
where the weather is both chilly and wet. TSSI also made a suspension
system for the standard PASGT GI helmet. It is a padded suspension
system and adjustable chinstrap that makes the helmets more comfortable
to wear and prevents headaches, said Strang. “The Marines
bought several hundred.”
TSSI also plans to design a customized one-piece chemical-biological
protective suit. “Some units want a one-piece suit, like a
coverall,” said Strang. The military field-issue suit is a