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Military equipment: Army, Marines strive to improve personal combat gear.

AS THE PENTAGON STRUGGLES TO pay mounting war costs, the Army and Marine Corps are pressing ahead with efforts to provide troops with improved equipment.

The list is long, including everything from better helmets and body armor to protective eyewear, winter clothing, boots, socks, even parachutes.

Money; however, is tight. The Army expects that it will need $17.1 billion in 2007 alone to repair or replace equipment that has been lost, damaged or worn out in combat. The Marines may require as much as $12 billion.

Nevertheless, the two services say they are placing a high priority on providing better personal gear to help protect war fighters against specific threats they are facing, such as roadside bombs, desert heat and cold mountain weather.

"I've seen more equipment go out to Marines in the past four years than in the 20 years I was in the Marine Corps," said Daniel F. Fitzgerald, program manager for infantry combat equipment for the Marine Corps Systems Command, at Quantico, Va.

The two services for the first time, conducted a joint briefing recently in Alexandria, Va., to outline their needs to defense contractors. "We did it to save time and money," said Lt. Col. John Lemondes, the Army's product manager for clothing and individual equipment at Fort Belvoir, Va.

"We're aligned almost identically with the Marine Corps," he said. "Yet, this was the first time the two services had almost everybody we deal with in the same room at the same time.

"The goal is to make everything lighter, less bulky, more capable and more affordable," Lemondes said.

To help achieve that goal, Lemondes' office in 2005, established a quality assurance team. "To the degree we can, we use the equipment ourselves," he said.

For example, his team recently tested personal airdrop systems, cold-weather clothing and mountain gear. "We need to show that, when we put something out there, we are not afraid to use it."

Altogether, the clothing and individual equipment office is responsible for 200 items, Lemondes said. Current priorities include:

Advanced bomb suit. This full-body emsemble, designed to protect explosive ordnance disposal technicians against bomb blasts, fragments, heat and flame, dates back to 2002. The Army wants to make the helmet more blast resistant and to add night-vision technology and a holster for handheld EOD equipment, said Maj. Clay Williamson, an Army assistant product manager. The service plans to buy up to 1,000 of the upgraded suits, starting in 2008.

Advanced combat helmet. Since awarding five-year contracts worth up to $200 million to Gentex Corp., of Carbondale, Pa.; Mine Safety Appliances, of Newport, Vt., and Specialty Defense Systems, of Dunmore, Pa., the Army has fielded more than 600,000 of these helmets, said Maj. Jonathan D. Long, an Army assistant product manager.

They are lighter, more comfortable and stable than the previous version, and they offer more ballistic protection, he added. The Army is considering further improvements, including an even lighter weight without reducing protection, a built-in communications system and a ballistic face shield.

Eye protection. The Army is fielding a wide variety of stylish, over-the-counter eyewear products in an effort to do a better job of protecting soldiers' vision from combat injuries, sun, wind and dust, said Sarah Morgan-Clyborne, an Army assistant product manager.

When fighting began in 2001, she said, soldiers were being issued eyewear designed in the mid-1990s. "Our soldiers were not wearing the legacy items, because they did not meet the 'cool' factor.

"We went to the commercial market and made a tremendous effort to get soldiers to wear their eyewear," Morgan-Clyborne said. "We allow the soldiers to select their own protective eyewear, based on need and style preference. That improves the overall acceptance of the eyewear, increases its use and reduces the likelihood for eye injuries."

The same policy also encourages competition among vendors and accelerates the introduction of new items with improved designs and reduced costs, she said.

To qualify for Army use, at a minimum, spectacles have to be able to withstand the impact of a .15 caliber bullet at up to 660 feet per second. Goggles must be able to take a hit from a .22 caliber round at up to 560 feet per second.

Cold-weather clothes. To help soldiers cope with winter in Afghanistan's mountains, where temperatures can plunge well below zero, the Army is redesigning its entire system of cold-weather clothing "from the skin out," said Maj. Robert Helms, an Army assistant product manager.

The new wardrobe will be multi-layered, with versatile insulation that allows soldiers to adapt to varying environmental conditions. "For example, I'm from a cold-weather climate, and I'm comfortable with minimum gear," Helms said. "But a soldier from Florida may need every piece of gear he has to stay warm."

The system will have 12 components, including lightweight and mid-weight undershirts and shorts; jackets to protect from cold, wind and moisture, and parkas and trousers for extreme conditions. The Army plans to field the new garments in 2007.

Cold-weather sleeping bag. To make it easier for soldiers to sleep in wintry conditions, the Army is developing a modular sleeping bag system. "We call it a bag within a bag," Helms said. It consists of a camouflaged water-resistant, breathable bivy cover, a lightweight patrol bag, an intermediate cold-weather bag and a compression sack to store and carry the system.

"The combined system has to sustain body heat for hours at temperatures as low as minus 50 degrees," he said. "Also, we want to make it easier to get into the bag, to deal with zippers and fasteners while wearing mittens or gloves."

Individual stove. Meanwhile, the service is completing testing of a cold-weather stove small enough to fit into a rucksack, Helms said. The stove, to be fielded in 2007, is being designed to enable individual soldiers to melt snow or ice to make water, heat beverages or warm themselves. Current stoves are either too large or produce too little heat.

Family of flashlights. The Army is drawing up plans for a family of flashlights including small, personal ones and versions that can be mounted on rifles, pistols or helmets, Long said. Some will emit standard white light, while others will provide three colors for signaling and still others will produce infrared for improved night vision.

The service plans a field trial late this year, with a request for proposals in 2007 and purchase of 225,000 per year for five years beginning in 2008, Long said.

Strap cutter. To help soldiers get out of their vehicles more quickly after they are hit by roadside bombs, the service intends give drivers and crewmembers strap cutters similar to those used by airborne jumpmasters, Long said.

"We've had rollovers in Baghdad, where soldiers were doomed because their vehicles were on fire and they couldn't get out of their seatbelts. If they had these cutters they could slice right through and get out in a hurry."

The Army plans to include the cutters as part of each soldier's individual gear, placed someplace where it will be close at hand. "Each unit will decide where it is worn, perhaps at the small of the back or on the hip," Long said. Initial plans are to buy 255,000 of them per year.

Parachutes. "This is a good time to be in the parachute business, both in special operations and conventional forces," said Maj. Shawn Lucas, an Army assistant product manager. "In parts of Afghanistan and other nooks and crannies of the world, the parachute may be the sole means of entry," he said.

For that reason, Army airborne is growing by two brigades and two battalions, and each special forces group is expanding by one battalion apiece, he said. For those units, "the next seven to eight years are going to be a pretty intensive and busy time."

The Army plans to equip its airborne forces with a new generation of parachutes to replace those that have been in use since the 1950s. The T-11 advanced tactical parachute system is designed to handle up to 400 pounds per jump, compared to 250 pounds for the older models. It also slows the jumper's rate of descent by 25 percent, which is expected to reduce landing injuries significantly. The T-11 is being tested at Fort Bragg, Lucas said. Production of perhaps as many of 52,000 parachutes is planned to begin in 2008.

Those plans, however, are contingent on funding, and Lucas warned that the parachutes are competing with other gear, such as body armor and night-vision equipment, that soldiers also need to perform their missions.

The Marine Corps shares many of the same equipment priorities with the Army, Fitzgerald said. "After all, we have very similar missions," he noted. The Corps also is active in providing new equipment for its troops and in monitoring the performance of the gear after it is fielded.

"I went to Iraq in November to see the gear you provided in action," Fitzgerald told the contractors. "I hope to go to Afghanistan this year." Marine priorities included:

Body armor. Although war casualties continue to climb, Interceptor body armor, with its ceramic inserts, has been "very successful" in saving lives, Fitzgerald said.

The Marines completed fielding of the Interceptor in April, added Scott Adams, the service's armor and load-bearing team leader. They now are laying plans for the next generation of ballistic protection.

The Corps was scheduled in September to award a contract for 60,000 copies of a replacement called the modular tactical vest. "We want to have Marines out there say 'I want my MTV,'" Adams said.

The vest provides increased protection, including the side torso, lower back and shoulder. It is easier and quicker to close and release. It also does a better job of distributing the weight Marines have to carry into combat.

"We're killing those guys already," Adams said. "A lot of weight is hanging off the shoulder area. What we're looking at is distributing that weight all over the body."

Lightweight helmet. The Marines expect to complete fielding their own headgear replacement in the first quarter of 2008, Adams said. The lightweight helmet, as the Marine version is known, weighs in at 3.1 pounds, the same as the Army's, but lighter than the older one. It provides more comfort and protection than the Army helmet, he said.

The lightweight helmet has proven its effectiveness in combat, Adams said. It will stop a 9 mm pistol round. It won't stop an AK-47 7.62 mm projectile, but it will slow one down and deflect it. "An AK-47 round struck one Marine's helmet in Iraq recently. It penetrated the surface, but it went around the inside of the helmet, and the Marine survived without injury."

The Corps has considered adding ceramic plates around the helmets' outside, but "if we did that, the Marines wouldn't be able to hold their heads up," Adams said.

In 2007, however, the service plans to begin focusing on ways to integrate the Marine helmet into a modular head-borne system that protects the entire head, including eyes and ears, and is wired to accommodate radios and other electronic communications devices.

A family of packs. The Marines have fielded more than 96,000 of their individual load-bearing equipment system of packs that is replacing the older modular lightweight load-bearing equipment version. The latest system includes a main pack, assault pack and a hydration system. Separate versions are available for reconnaissance personnel and medical corpsmen. The system is expected to be fully fielded by 2009.

Included is a choice of pouches that leathernecks can add to the system for specific needs. "Right now, Marines are going out and buying their own," Adams said. "They shouldn't have to buy something that we should be issuing them."

Insect-repellant uniforms. The Corps plans "very soon" to begin issuing combat utility uniforms treated with an insect repellant called permethrin, said John O'Brien, team leader for support equipment and mountain cold weather. The reason: Insect bites have proven a major health hazard in Iraq. A total of 38 Marines there have contracted malaria, which is transmitted by mosquito bites, Fitzgerald said.

Seasonal footwear. The Marines are evaluating two new boots--one for hot weather and another for more temperate seasons, Fitzgerald said.

The hot-weather boot is designed to offer greater comfort, durability and breathability during Iraqi and Afghan summers than the older jungle and desert version. The temperate-weather footwear is intended to provide improved traction and cushioning, compared to the traditional Marine black boot, during long marches and combat movements.

The Corps also is trying to develop a cold-weather mountain boot for the frigid heights of Afghanistan, but "so far we've not had a lot of success," Fitzgerald said. "So we're trying to come up with an insulated over-boot that will be compatible with the temperate-weather boot."

In addition, Marines headed for winter deployments are getting cold-weather socks. The new versions are made with a wool-blend yarn that dries quicker and provides better protection against low temperatures and blisters than the material in standard socks.

Since the invasion of Iraq, both the Army and Marines have accelerated their efforts to get the latest equipment into the hands of their combat troops. Lemondes had particular praise for the Army's Rapid Fielding Initiative, which was established in 2003 to speed gear to deploying units.

"The Rapid Fielding Initiative is a great success story," he said. "I hope to see it continue." Through May of this year, he said, 649,779 soldiers had been reequipped through the program. The Army's objective is, by the end of 2007, to provide new equipment for all 1.1 million members of the active-duty forces, reserves and Army National Guard.

Some contractors at the briefing, however, complained that once gear is deployed, it is difficult for them to find out how it is performing so that they can propose improvements.

"It would be very interesting to have some feedback for the gear that they've used for months, but it's impossible to get," said Marie Meunier-Bouchard, owner of Wild Things Inc., a New Hampshire-based manufacturer of cold-weather clothing. "If we can't find out how it performed, how can we design something better?"

Army officials said they try to keep the contractors informed. "We share what we can with you," Helms said. "You have to give us a chance to gather the data." That, he said, can take 60 to 90 days, or longer. "We can't just send it over in a week or so."

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Author:Kennedy, Harold
Publication:National Defense
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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