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New US kit trialed in Afghanistan

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  • New US kit trialed in Afghanistan

    Geared up
    By Rob Curtis
    KORENGAL, AFGHANISTAN — The soldiers of “Dagger” Company were decked out in armor vests with all their plates, and knee and elbow pads, and were heading for Shuriyak in Afghanistan’s Pech River Valley.

    It was 2 a.m., recalls Staff Sgt. Douglas Middleton, when the platoon landed 600-700 meters from their first objective.

    “This was in September and it was still pretty hot,” Middleton said. “It took us seven hours to move about 800 meters. It was hell, absolute hell.” The platoon fought its way back up a mountain ridgeline while in constant enemy contact. By the mission’s end, two soldiers and a pilot were casualties.

    Just weeks later, though, the same platoon, part of 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, sprinted through the hills carrying 15 to 23 pounds less gear, each courtesy of the Asymmetric Warfare Group’s Lighten the Soldier’s Load assessment program.

    The effort aims to determine how much weight soldiers can shed without losing capability.

    Middleton said the new gear was a game changer. With new plate carriers and other, lighter gear dropping about 14 pounds per rifleman and more for gunners, the 2-12th moved a mile in about 15 minutes over tough terrain.

    The Army chose the 2-12th Infantry Regiment to try out the new gear because of the terrain they covered.

    “We were focusing on the extremely mountainous, high altitude, rugged terrain,” said William Garland, a deputy project manager with the Rapid Equipping Force, the organization that provides the equipment. “We went through each of the [combat outposts] and [outposts] with 4-4’s commanders to decide who would get the [the gear] based on these high-traffic patrol areas.” The 2-12th was given more than a dozen nonstandard items to try out. The new gear included Eagle MBAV-A plate carriers, Arc’teryx Knee Caps, MK48 machine guns, wrist-top Suunto GPS units, new boots and better socks.

    “It’s so much easier to move in that stuff; it doesn’t constrict. It’s easier to breathe. It’s more light weight,” Middleton said.

    The new gear-up started with a pre-deployment assessment by the brigade’s senior non-commissioned officers. Lt. Col. Brian Pearl, the commander of 2-12th, said that Sgt. Maj. Charles Sasser picked up the ball back in August 2008.

    Sasser “got with all the soldiers and asked them what they would want if they were ‘king for a day’ kit-wise,” Pearl said. “We put together a list of stuff that we prioritized and started to purchase to make us a lighter, better-equipped, better fighting force.” They started stocking up on Oakley M-Frames, Army combat boots, Mutant Mittens, MSR Whisperlite International stoves, Wiley-X gloves and headlamps from Princeton Tech.

    As Sasser was developing his wish list, the AWG and the REF were simultaneously preparing to spend millions to outfit a group of lucky soldiers with lighter gear in a battlefield test.

    In all, the Army spent about $4.4 million to buy 500 sets of designer equipment chosen by the veteran warriors of the Asymmetric Warfare Group to outfit most of the grunts in 2-12th, and part of a couple of others, 3-61st Cavalry and 1-12th Infantry. 2-12th scored about 300 sets of what they call the REF gear.

    The theater command later said the soldiers with lighter gear were a great test bed for the Army’s camouflage assessment. So PEO Soldier bestowed the battalion with what would become the Army’s camouflage pattern for Afghanistan, MultiCam uniforms and load-bearing gear.

    After six months of testing, the men of the 2-12th decided the new gear is far superior to the standard-issue kit.

    How will their experience affect the equipment issued to the rest of the fighting force?

    Some is already in the pipeline. Troops throughout Afghanistan will have the new MultiCam uniforms by fall. New plate carriers are also coming, said Col. William Cole of PEO Soldier. Cole’s office is overseeing the fielding of plate carriers by the tens of thousands for those deployed to Afghanistan.

    As for the rest, Cole says a commander has several options to bring this equipment to his soldiers, pointing out that some methods are more streamlined than others. The traditional route is the slow Joint Capability Integration Development System.

    If a unit has discretionary funds, it can buy its own equipment. “The only thing we restrict is personal protective equipment,” Cole said.

    Units don’t have discretion to sidestep the Army’s testing requirement or procurement laws for items such as body armor and helmets. On the other hand, Cole said he wouldn’t get in the way of a unit buying something that increases their effectiveness as long as it’s not a PPE item.

    Another way is through the Operational Needs Statement process. “This is only for deployed forces or forces that are about to deploy,” Cole said.

    Soldiers that want to see their unit get a new piece of kit would send an ONS to their division, which will send it through their theater command.

    Contacting the REF to start a franchise project in theater is an additional way for units to get their hands on gear quickly — if the REF finds merit in their request. Units in Afghanistan can contact the REF office at Bagram Airfield.

    Cole said he recognizes that the need to bring better equipment to the field can be stymied by an over*burdening procurement process. As far as studies such as the load assessment, “I think it drove tighter collaboration between the PEO, the REF and the AWG,” he said. “Stuff like the [load] study beforehand is what forced the collaborations between those agencies and really opened doors.”
    Last edited by FMolloy; 20 May 2010, 12:15.
    "The dolphins were monkeys that didn't like the land, walked back to the water, went back from the sand."

  • #2


    • Plate carrier: The plate carrier was far and away the biggest hit with the soldiers. Every soldier agreed dropping 4 pounds off the Improved Outer Tactical Vest (plus the 5 pounds of side plates and 2 pounds of other related equipment) felt great. Combine this with the wider openings at the neck and arms for better range of motion and cooling, and the Eagle MBAV-A was a slam dunk. Move faster, breathe easier and shoot better, solders often said. The modular nature of the MBAV means commanders can up the level of protection or reduce weight with the use or omission of side plates, side soft armor and PALS cummerbund. These were so effective that the brigade commander, Col. Randy George, talked the REF into delivering enough to outfit his entire fighting force by December.

    • MultiCam: Always in the soldiers’ top three gear favorites, MutiCam made 2-12th Infantry nearly invisible to the enemy, air support and even each other. Staff Sgt. Dennis Famisan said he’d only be able to discern men in MultiCam from the rocks if he caught the glint of their sunglasses, “Without their eye protection, I can’t even spot my guys. If they are sitting down next to a big rock or something pulling security, you can barely see them.”

    • Mark 48: Leaders and gunners were big fans of the lightweight Mark 48 7.62mm machine gun. It was made for Special Operations Command, and the Army is using them as a stopgap measure until its M240L is fielded. The MK48 is about 9 pounds lighter and nine inches shorter than the M240B, while giving up only a 3 percent decrease in maximum effective range.

    • Boots: Leaders of 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, knew that footwear would be a critical element in the health and performance of the fighting force. They had already been issued and trained with the Army’s mountain combat boot when the Asymmetric Warfare Group and Rapid Equipping Force brought them 500 pairs of Merrell Chameleon light hiking boots. This is an odd one because the Chameleon is practically a sneaker in boot’s clothing. It’s super light and has a supple sole when compared with a true backpacking boot. The lighter boots don’t offer much stability or protection. Despite this, the soldiers loved them for their lightness and traction — right up to the point the soles split and the tread wore away after less than a couple of months, in most cases. The brigade decided to replace the boots with a heavier duty, longer lasting model. Because the unit was deployed and the REF had an office in Bagram they were able to end run the Berry Amendment and spend up to $1 million on boots that weren’t made in the U.S. They ended up buying thousands of boots favored by the Army Rangers, including boots from Scarpa, Asolo, Kayland and Lowa. The brigade also put out guidance allowing the men to use any boot that they wanted if the issued hiking boots didn’t fit properly. “I told them that I don’t care what they wear [for boots],” said George, the 4-4 commander, “but I don’t like them having to buy it.” This added a bunch of Garmont, REI and other brands to the mix. Nearly every soldier liked his boots downrange. The only boot that got panned was the Army’s own mountain combat boot. Soldiers said it was too hot for summer and too heavy for the steeps. One soldier told Army Times he traded a pair for a new uniform, and another traded his for a case of cigarettes from a local Afghan base worker.

    • Socks: Smartwool socks were popular among the men before the AWG/REF gave them out. They were a winner for hygiene and comfort through the summer heat and winter cold. The brigade bought a few thousand more in February. The merino wool socks are naturally anti-microbial and can be sweated in for days without stinking; this meant a lot to guys living in close quarters in remote combat outposts.

    • Pack: Medics and radio guys found the Mystery Ranch 3 Day Assault pack, a SOCom staple, tough and easy to get in and out of thanks to its unique tri-zip design. They also said the side bolsters worked and the pack was a good fit with body armor. First Lt. Chris Capaso, a platoon leader, liked the pack but found his ASIP radio too small for the internal radio harness.

    • Weapons accessories: Flashlight and optics. Most of the Aimpoint T1 Micros given to 2-12th by the REF wound up back in the armory. The soldiers said engagements always seemed be at the maximum effective range of the M4 or just beyond. The non*-magnified T1 is bright, tiny and fast, but it’s a close-combat optic. Soldiers preferred the simplicity of a single optic over the flexible but slightly cumbersome 3x magnifier attachment. Perhaps if the soldiers were still clearing buildings they’d have kept them, but the Trijicon 4x Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight, while not as flexible, was better suited for their fight. A few guys in each squad carried an M600 Scout Light. They used the infrared light to point out targets or hazards as they moved under night-vision goggles on moonless nights. Once they go to infrared light, they have to use the older, larger and heavier incandescent heads, since the smaller LED heads produce no infrared light.

    • Base layer: Smartwool base layers got thumbs up for the same reasons as their socks. They don’t need as much laundering, so you need fewer.

    • Shelter: Mountain Hardwear’s Ultralamina 45 bags shave ounces by using a nontraditional zipper arrangement. Two half-zips at the top instead of a long side zip means better insulation at the lower extremities. The unit also had a bunch of Mountain Hardwear Phantom 45s, 1-pound down bags. Both were favored over the Army’s sleep system. When used with Nemo Equipment’s Gogo SE bivouac tent, the men were comfortable sleeping on exposed mountaintop observation posts through the winter in skivvies — and that says something.

    • Knee pads: Arc’teryx Knee Caps were originally developed as skiers’ knee pads. They are the thinnest and lightest strap-on knee pads on the market. Soldiers said they held up, stayed up and did the job at one-third of the weight of standard promotion pads. Some even fit them inside the knee pad pockets of their ACU pants.

    • Magazines: Magpull P-MAGs work in combat. Capt. Timothy Eastman gave his evaluation: “I wish we had gotten a full set of P-MAGs for all the guys. They’re much more reliable than the standard-issue magazines as far as not falling apart and breaking mid-mission. They’re plastic; they don’t clink against all your other stuff. The bottoms don’t fall out like on the GI mags.”

    • GPS: One of the few misses was the Suunto X10 GPS watch. It didn’t hold up. The cases fell apart, the rechargeable battery was a pain, and battery life was not up to the rigor of all-day combat ops. It was also slow to find positions and awkward to use. Garmin Foretrex units are commonly used and adored. The soldiers didn’t really navigate with them so much as use them as fast and simple references for passing positions and front-line traces.

    Last edited by FMolloy; 20 May 2010, 12:16.
    "The dolphins were monkeys that didn't like the land, walked back to the water, went back from the sand."


    • #3
      luckily we already have most of the above kit - including MultiCam.

      ...Once a Rifleman - Always a Rifleman... Celer et Audax

      The Rifles


      • #4
        Some of our guys got the vests - they are much lighter but definitely provide less protection - definitely a trade up but I would take the lighter armor. We also got Merrill Mountain Boots - nice boots but we're not allowed wear them here (our AO), so I sent mine home - nice to wear in civvy street (won't be allowed to wear them in uniform back home). Supposed to have gotten the new mags - still waiting.

        As for the CQO - I like them but they could have gone for some magnification. Although I've never had to use them in combat so I'm not sure I'm the best judge. Can't wait for the multi-cam - need to get rid of the ACU's. They suck!
        There may be only one time in your life when your country will call upon you and you will be the only one who can do the nasty job that has to be done -- do it or forever after there will be the taste of ashes in your mouth.