For a three-day mission in Afghanistan, a soldier carries about 130 pounds worth of stuff. The Army for years has promised to “lighten the load” by providing troops equipment that weighs less.
But the plan has not worked out as expected. Some of the gear that soldiers take to war is lighter than the older equipment it replaced.
Collectively, however, the combat load has not become lighter because most of the weight consists of essentials — food, water, and ammunition — that soldiers need for survival and cannot be replaced with lighter items.
There is one piece of equipment that would dramatically reduce a soldier’s load: a water purifier that would enable him to drink from rivers or lakes. But no such purifier exists, at least not one that meets U.S. safety standards.
“Everyone wants to know what we are doing about water,” says Brig. Gen. Peter N. Fuller, the Army’s program executive officer who oversees soldier equipment.
The Army and Marine Corps have endlessly studied ways to reduce the combat load, but in the end, it’s water that contributes considerably to the heavy load, Fuller says in an interview at his office in Fort Belvoir, Va.
“We are looking for technologies everywhere,” he says. There are purifiers overseas that troops from other countries use, but those don’t meet U.S. certification standards, Fuller laments. “We have freeze-dried water. But you have to pour water to make the water.”
Failed attempts at lowering the weight of troop loads cannot be blamed on lack of trying. The Army has practically reduced the weight of nearly every piece of gear in the inventory, but it still can’t make a dent in the overall kit.
It’s a losing battle, says Fuller. “Every time we take something out, the soldier makes up the weight with other things.”
Items such as sensors, tripods, cold weather clothing, boots, sleeping bags, flashlights, protective eyewear, all have been replaced by lighter variants. It costs $22,000 to $26,000 to equip each soldier with the newer lighter equipment.
The Army even tried to reduce the weight of rations by making them smaller but packing in more nutritional content. That is still an experiment in progress.
No revolutionary breakthrough has yet emerged to dramatically lower the weight on soldiers’ backs.
“That is the biggest challenge we’re having,” says Fuller. “Right now we treat the soldier as a Christmas tree, and we keep hanging things on him. Let me give you this great lightweight this, lightweight that.” In the end, he still has to carry 130 pounds worth of gear.
Fuller often gets questions from soldiers on when the Army will have GI Joe-like stuff that they can only dream of: nearly weightless gear and barely there body armor.
“Soldiers want what GI Joe has,” Fuller says.
That won’t happen any time soon. For now, the best the Army can do is try new ways to trim small amounts of weight.
Two battalions in Afghanistan recently began a “soldier load assessment” to compare one unit’s gear versus the other.
“Every ounce has to be considered,” Fuller says.
One battalion was outfitted with new equipment (lighter armor plate carriers, T-shirts, handheld GPS, and countless other pieces of gear) and the other has older equipment.
The Army is now evaluating how the weight may or may not affect soldiers’ performance and health. “What’s really wearing out the kids” is the big question, says Fuller. It’s not clear yet that weight is the primary driver. Soldiers’ fitness levels and diet also are major factors. “We’ll look at everything,” he says. “At 8,000 feet, what’s really hurting your body? We don’t precisely know yet.”