The Intelligence Behind The American Soldier’s Clothing And Gear

Gearing up the American soldier for the challenges he encounters in the field of combat is no simple feat. So much thought is put into each item, ensuring that the soldier's concentration is solely focused on the task at hand and not on worrying over his gear.

At Natick, improving what the American soldier wears is a constant challenge. A team of experts that includes scientists, engineers, textile technologists, clothing designers, retired military equipment specialists and experts in other fields, work towards three common goals; and that is to improve functionality, durability and comfort.

The dedication and passion that each expert in the team has is as awesome as their expertise. Assisting in the design of helmets, body armor, boots, gloves, uniforms and flame resistant gear, they never stop improving on these items to ensure that the American soldier has the equipment to survive and at the same time, be comfortable while wearing it. This incessant pursuit of excellence stems from the fact that the experts at Natick want these soldiers to have the best equipment and gear they could possibly provide. Jay Connors, division leader, Warrior Equipment and Systems Division at Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, or NSRDEC said, "They are dedicated in this vein because they want to do the right thing by our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines”.

A former Marine Reservist, Connors has travelled to Afghanistan thrice and has been outfitted in the same uniform and gear that the soldiers use. He said he was completely confident because the gear was the best stuff out there and he knows it. The NSRDEC supports the Program Executive Office Soldier by providing them with engineers, clothing designers, textile technologists and chemists for developing soldier gear and clothing. Ben Cooper, a colleague of Connors, is the footwear project engineer in the Footwear Performance Laboratory or FPL. The scientific analyses, which his department does, have a direct influence in the development of the footwear that will eventually be used by soldiers, special operators, Marines and sailors.

The FPL ensures performance by testing stiffness, heat insulation, impact pressure, flexibility and slip resistance until they are fully satisfied with it. Cooper compares the American soldier to a high-performance athlete and that’s what they keep in mind when working on the soldier’s footgear. The FPL has developed waterproof boots, hot weather boots, cold weather boots and blast protective boots. Soldiers in Afghanistan have been equipped with combat boots that provide better ankle stability and more secure lacing systems. These improvements were realized because of the feedback they get from the field. They can only develop the most ideal footgear for soldiers when they have a complete idea of what they want and what they need. Recent data has shown that the improvements made significantly decreased the number of soldiers’ lower leg injuries.

Next up for the FPL is the Modular Boot System which is expected to maximize efficiency without sacrificing comfort or safety.  This footgear will come with three components consisting of two removable liners, an insulated garter and base boot which will be a hot weather, flame resistant boot. The people at FPL are currently working hard to get this boot into circulation as this will considerably cut down the number of boots that have to be lugged around by the soldier. Suitable for dry, wet, extremely hot and cold temperatures, field tests are expected to commence by fiscal year 2013.

Team leader for the Design, Pattern and Prototype Team; Annette LaFleur and her tailors work just as hard as the FPL. The physical environment of Iraq and Afghanistan provides challenges that are more than what the average person would expect in a dry climate. Extreme cold, heat, sand and wind should be considered and according to Lafleur, “to design with the focus on durability and repair-ability is key”. She adds that the soldier’s clothing must work as a system and that means integration is a crucial part of the design. Focusing on designing soldier’s clothing that maximizes ability to accomplish their mission, enhances quality of life, protection and survival ability, Lafleur states that the place and the mission make the clothes. Currently, the focus is on more protective fire-resistant fabrics, the use of breathable fabrics, blast and ballistic protection and always using light fabrics to ensure comfort.

Connors says that the NSRDEC is all about collaboration, resulting to better knowledge, better data collection and the ability to make better decisions. He wants soldiers to know that the division will keep on working to make sure that those in the field have the right stuff to meet their mission requirements.


Army Combat Gear & Uniform Changes Set for 2012

Though the official announcement has yet to be made, Colonel William Cole, program manager of Soldier Protection and Individual Protection said that new hot weather combat boots and stronger ACU pants will be released in 2012. Along with the new boots and pants, a new and better combat glove will also be released.Specific information about these changes are limited, however, it is known that the Twill combat pants will be made of "significantly" stronger fabrics and will come with knee pads. These pants will be using the Operation Enduring Freedom Camouflage Pattern, better known as the OCP. It is noted that the OCP ACUs will likewise have stronger fabrics that offer about a 50% improvement.

The ACU digital uniform will be
made with a stronger material next year.
This improved fabric will most likely necessitate importation of materials and as required by the Berry Amendment, the U.S. Armed Forces should use American made textile. Using foreign made materials for this purpose would have to pass through Congress and necessitates a congressional waiver to be pushed through. The Defender M material consists of 65% flame-resistant rayon and the fibers used in them are from the Austrian based company, Lenzing. Only the fibers are bought from Lenzing, the weaving and all other processing it undergoes thereafter are done in the U.S.

U.S. based manufacturers argue that viable domestic alternatives to rayon are available. Because of this, there are rumors that these manufacturers are seeking to get the congressional waiver cancelled. Alternatives do exist and the Armed Forces are well aware of this fact. In 2008, the Air Force chose the Abrams V fabric for use in flame resistant ground combat equipment, a blend of nylon, cotton and Nomex and 100% U.S. produced. Nomex, however, is more expensive and needs a longer time to produce. Furthermore, rayon is more comfortable, moisture absorbent and can be easily dyed.

The new hot weather boots is expected to provide better ankle and foot support but will most likely be stiffer when worn. In February 2011, the U.S. chose the Belleville 950 Combat Mountain Hiker, which will be issued in addition to the current combat boots. Featuring a Vibram Bifida outsole, it boasts of better support, grip, fit and durability as ut is 20% thicker than what most combat boots have.

Col. Cole's office also revealed that selection is ongoing for the new ACU camouflage pattern, in which 20 submissions are being reviewed. It will be followed by wear and field tests and if all goes according to schedule, production of the new ACUs will commence in October of 2012.