Military Should Rethink How It Buys Equipment for Troops

By William I. Oberholtzer

The challenge facing military equipment buyers today is which technologies to pursue. This is particularly true in the individual protective equipment arena.

Separating “snake oil” from viable technology has been a burdensome task for program managers.

It is safe to say that the American soldier is the best equipped in the world. But best equipped is not the same as having the best equipment.

A case in point is the current camouflage ensembles. After spending more than $4 billion, each service has its own camouflage uniform, none of which meets operational requirements without at least one or more waivers. The same can be said of helmets and body armor.

Instead of the piecemeal approach to designing individual protective equipment, the Defense Department needs to begin with a clean slate by looking at requirements across all services and then evaluating emerging technologies on the basis of demonstrated, as opposed to theoretical, potential. Additionally, a synergistic approach to individual protective equipment should be pursued, one that increases performance by adopting materials that complement each other and yet can be modularized to address various threat levels and climate challenges.

Undergarments are a service member’s first barrier of protection against the environment. They also, frequently, receive but passing interest by battle dress designers. Properly designed undergarments can greatly enhance the service member’s comfort and enhance the protection afforded by other components of a battle dress ensemble.

Advances in textiles and weaving and needle technology can yield fabrics that wick moisture away from the body, afford protection against common bacteria and provide physical support by compressing the torso and extremities in the same manner as anti-embolism stockings.
Undergarments can be designed so that, in addition to other attributes, they can resist soil contamination and provide a final barrier against fine particulates generated by explosive devices.     

Perhaps the most controversial component of a service member’s ensemble, next to body armor, is the battle dress. In spite of the billions of dollars spent on this most important piece of a soldier’s attire, we still haven’t gotten it right. It seems that every service has to have its own camouflage pattern, style and length of jacket or shirt. And let’s not forget about the pockets. One thing seems apparent: Those designing the battle dress aren’t required to wear them, at least not under the conditions for which they were designed.

We need to forget the fashion show and start with a fresh piece of paper. First and foremost, the battle dress is, in many cases, a service member’s home away from home. In remote areas, a soldier or Marine may be required to spend days, if not weeks, in the same apparel. Consequently, future battle dress needs to be designed to accommodate its wearer’s basic needs, as well as requirements posed by various climates and mission profiles.

Like undergarments, it should be self-wicking and contamination resistant. In addition to offering protection from the elements, the uniform needs to be capable of venting to dissipate body heat. Thought should be given to having knee and elbow pads incorporated into the system rather than having soldiers strap on additional items of apparel.

How many times have we seen kneepads wrapped around servicemen’s ankles as he darts from one firing position to another? The length of the uniform, and pocket placement, should accommodate ammunition vests, load-bearing equipment and other items without bunching up around the waist, sides or shoulders.

Once basic day-to-day requirements are met, active camouflage technologies can be pursued. With advances in thermochromic and photochromic materials, it is possible to develop camouflage patterns that aid in obscuration by changing color when subjected to changes in temperature and sunlight. The addition of abrasion-resistant holographic pigments will afford unprecedented visual obscuration.

Last but not least, composite textiles can make the service member all but invisible to image-intensification and thermal sensors. Let us not forget balaclavas, gloves and ponchos for increased protection.

Helmet design is not rocket science. There are basic geometric shapes that lend themselves to superior helmet configurations. With advances in materials such as graphene and nanotubes, there are opportunities to make helmets stronger and lighter than those currently used. What is needed is a fully qualified helmet which provides Level III protection. In short, one that protects against 7.62x39 rounds traveling at 2,300 feet per second, resists perforation and sustains no more than 12mm back face deflection.

Current helmet designs, although better than their predecessors, fail to consistently meet this requirement. Future helmets need a center of gravity which closely approximates the center of mass. This will improve stability, increase comfort and decrease fatigue. Improved ventilation and reduced rattle space are also desirable.

It is safe to say that current helmet geometries need to be revisited. Helmet designs need to incorporate materials that control breakage and spread or dissipate blunt trauma via an integrated suspension system. Current helmet systems lose their integrity with the attachment of night vision mounts, communications equipment and other gear.

The pads system, which does little to dissipate blunt trauma, is unsanitary and ultimately uncomfortable. Pillar-style suspension systems are superior to those currently being used, and reduce the effects of blunt trauma and blast waves on both the cortex and the cerebellum. Not only will this reduce the number of severe traumatic brain injuries, but mild traumatic brain injuries as well.

When it comes to body armor, effective head, torso, hip and groin protection from small arms fire and fragmentation continues to elude developers. Current systems, although an improvement over earlier ones, still fall short. The “something is better than nothing” approach has done little to push the technological envelope and allowed private industry to sell equipment that is little more than contemporary technology repackaged.

Current helmet designs ignore the lessons of the past. To make matters worse, testing protocols are inadequate. Body armor needs to accommodate a service member’s natural movement and not be an encumbrance. Speed and agility equate to survivability on the battlefield.

Likewise, weight is a major concern. Excessive weight has a cascade effect on a service member. Not only does it reduce speed and agility, but it also accelerates physical exhaustion and, ultimately, cognitive ability. Designers should establish a goal of providing a soldier with Level III protection with materials having an aerial density of 1.25 pounds per square foot, and insertable ballistic plates which provide Level V protection and an aerial density of 3.75 pounds per square foot. In addition to preventing perforation, back face deflection should not exceed 40mm. Body armor needs to be adjustable to all body configurations and provide protection to the neck, shoulders and upper thorax.

Boots are another item in need of improvement. Anything that can improve comfort and durability of footwear is definitely worth pursuing. Many of the materials used in body armor can provide protection to the soles of the feet. This approach is similar to the nylon inserts that were placed in jungle boots during the Vietnam War to protect against punji stakes. Other materials can reduce tread wear and sole separation, thus increasing the life of the boot.

One piece of equipment that soldiers really need is a “power vest.” The amount of electronic equipment that has made its way on to the battlefield is unprecedented. This astounding array of computers, communication devices, sensors, monitors, optics and navigational aids all require batteries in one form or another. Advances in chemistry have improved battery life, and reduced the number of batteries required.

Electrolyte slurries can be sandwiched between flexible materials to create vests or belts which conform to a service member’s individual shape. Add a common bus, and you have a single, rechargeable battery that can provide power to multiple electronic devices or to active camouflage. If designed properly, such a vest could provide additional padding for equipment and protection for the soldier. It may also prove sufficient to power exoskeletons currently under development.

Given austere budgets and competing requirements, the Defense Department should look before it leaps into the next major battle dress purchase. With advances in material technology, buyers need to understand both the available capabilities and limitations. The nation’s service members deserve the best; let’s get it right next time.

William I. Oberholtzer is a retired Army officer with 22 years of service. A certified program manager, he is currently a consultant with FFE International, in Alexandria, Va.

Topics: Combat Survivability, Defense Department, Procurement

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