Army’s Equipment Choices Shaped by Afghanistan War

By Sandra I. Erwin
While the Obama administration ponders a future strategy for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, the Army is rushing to buy new combat equipment especially suited to that nation’s high altitudes and tough terrain.

Purchases of new gear range from a new camouflage pattern for combat uniforms to lighter body armor, machine guns and portable oxygen tanks for helicopter pilots.

The Army’s program office for soldier equipment is busier than ever, noted Brig. Gen. Peter Fuller, who oversees the $6 billion a year research and procurement organization based at Fort Belvoir, Va.

One of the immediate priorities is to acquire a new camouflage uniform that can better blend with the Afghan terrain. The Army is under pressure from influential appropriator,Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Pa., to quickly field the new garments.

The plan is to test two variants: a “multicam” pattern that is favored by special operations forces and a “universal camouflage pattern delta,” which is similar to the current uniform but features an additional shade of brown. Two battalions in Afghanistan will be each outfitted with the new patterns. Army officials will take photos of the soldiers in different locations. Soldiers’ feedback and the photos will be presented to Army leaders in January so they can make a final decision on what uniform to field, said Col. William Cole, program manager for soldier protection.

At a Pentagon news conference Oct. 27, two soldiers displayed the new patterns. “I like the design and fit,”said Maj. John Bryan, who was wearing the UCPD “But what looks good at the PX”may not be the best choice for combat, he said. “Until we get to the mountains of Afghanistan, there’s no way to know which one is better.”

Body armor purchases also are driven by the needs of troops in Afghanistan.

For dismounted patrols in the mountains, “commanders want options to lighten the load,” Cole told reporters.

The protective vest that was designed for troops in Iraq is too heavy for soldiers in Afghanistan.

The Army agreed to buy a “plate carrier” vest that offers less coverage but is half the weight. The vest troops wear in Iraq was designed to protect against fragmentation and blasts such as roadside bombs. “At 5,000 feet in the mountains of Afghanistan, they’re not getting hit by IEDs,” Cole said.

Lighter machine guns also are on their way to Afghanistan.

The Army was able to convince U.S. Special Operations Command to share its contract to buy up to 1,000 MK48 assault 7.62mm machine guns, which have a range of 800 meters. The Army is fielding 350 of the new guns, to be split among three different brigades. Because of their relative low weight of 18.5 pounds, these weapons are suited for use at higher elevations, said Col. Doug Tamilio, program manager of soldier weapons.

The machine gun most widely used in the Army, the M240B, weighs 27.5 pounds. An infantry brigade typically carries 159 240Bs. The plan is for three brigades to also bring 150 of the MK48s, which would be assigned to soldiers who must fight at higher altitudes.

The Army, meanwhile, is testing a lighter version of the M240B, called the M240L.It weighs 22.5 pounds or 20.5 pounds if it has a short barrel, and is accurate at ranges of up to 1,800 meters. To lower the weight, the Army replaced the steel mid-section of the gun with titanium parts. “We want to get 50 M240Ls at the end of the month to Afghanistan,” said Tamilio.

Individual soldier firearms also are targeted for improvements. Fuller was asked by a reporter to comment on reports that the M4 carbines that soldiers used in Afghanistan in the Battle of Wanat in July 2008 were defective at high rates of fire. In that battle, approximately 200 Taliban guerillas attacked an outpost that was being defended by U.S. Army troops. The Taliban fighters broke through the American lines and entered the U.S. base until they were repelled by artillery and airpower, according to news reports.The battle resulted in a high number of U.S. casualties.

“I don’t know what happened directly,” Fuller said. “Insurgents had overwhelming fire on a small number of individuals.”

Fuller said the Army has been working to improve the M4 weapon and magazines. There is also an ongoing debate on whether the regular Army should have a heavier barrel fully automatic version of the M4 like the one used by special operations forces. “We’re having that discussion in the Army,” Fuller said.

Until a decision is made on possibly buying a new weapon, the Army wants to continue to improve its current inventory of 400,000 M4s, he said. “We’re soliciting input from industry to improve reliability and lethality on the M4s.”

Other equipment upgrades are targeted at aviators. Chinook and Blackhawk helicopter pilots will be receiving a new “portable oxygen delivery system” that will replace the current chest-size oxygen tanks. It only weighs 5 pounds, said Col. William Riggins, program manager of soldier warrior. Pilots are tethered to the large tanks,which limits their mobility, Riggins said. The current system does not allow them to fly higher than 10,000 feet. The new oxygen bottle lasts two to three hours. It has a computerized meter that senses the altitude when a pilot needsoxygen.

Aviators also will be issued new compact life rafts, said Riggins.

The Army’s equipment challenges in recent years -- two major wars each of which required unique soldier gear and weapons -- is sparking discussions within the service about the needto have a more flexible buying approach.

“We are thinking about how tobring modularity into the Army,” Fuller said. Body armor is a good example. “Everyone has the same body armor with 7.62mm protection. So everybody has to bear the weight,” even when they don’t need the extra protection. “Why does everyone have to have the same thing?” Fuller asked. “You’re hearing this a lot in theArmy now… Does everyone need a carbine or do some individuals need a personal weapon for close engagements?” he wondered.

The approach right now is “one size fits all,” Fuller said.

But he cautioned that the Army must be realistic about how far it can go with a flexible buying approach. “We have 1.1 million individuals in the Army. If we end up with 1.1 million options, it could get expensive.”

Topics: Armaments, Small Arms, Aviation, Rotary Wing, Land Forces

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