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Sea Soldier’s Load

Marines going into combat in Afghanistan in 2010 are so far removed, in terms of personal gear, from those who entered that conflict a decade earlier as to be almost unrecognizable. From helmets, body armor, and camouflage to about a dozen electronic devices – most new since 2001 – what today’s Marine wears and carries is a remarkable evolution in such a short period of time.

“Basically, Marines now have much more capability, but that has come with increased weight. In 2001, the Marines did not have the ESAPI plates they now have, for example,” noted Mark Richter, Marine Expeditionary Rifle Squad [MERS] program manager at USMC Systems Command [SYSCOM]. “When we look at the 2001 Marine versus today, almost every single item has changed, except for the weapon magazine – and now that is about to change with an improved magazine.”

The Corps is pursuing a “Lighten the Load” initiative designed to reduce the size and weight of those items – although the weight of a military pack has varied little since the days of Roman legionnaires. What has changed is content – where much of the legionnaire’s weight was grain, the modern Marine’s pack is burdened with dozens of batteries needed to power his multiple devices (see “Power Hungry”).

“The Lighten the Load initiative is being looked at from several directions,” Vince Goulding, director of the Experiment Division at the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab (MCWL), added. “One, we’re developing an experimental tactical communications suite that is smaller, lighter, less battery-intensive than the program of record. Second is a robotic unmanned ground system upon which Marines can put some of their non-negotiable gear in a movement-to-contact, particularly in a Phase Zero [stability and support] operation [See “Devil Droids”]. Third, we’re looking at initiatives to reduce consumables by tactical formations, especially water and batteries.

Sgt. Garrett Ferris (left), an Infantry Officers Course instructor at The Basic School on Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., wears current (2009) Marine Corps Combat gear, while Sgt. Paul Peacock (right) wears gear dating from 2001. Virtually everything, from boots to helmet, changed over the eight years separating one set of gear from another. Photo courtesy of USMC Systems Command.

“The first two were experimented on in July during Limited Objective Experiment 4 [LOE-4] in Hawaii; the third is a separate effort under the Experimental Forward Operating Base (ExFOB) energy initiative. Basically, water reduction would include foraging and tactical water purification systems several research labs are working on to issue to units down to the squad level to purify local water – streams, pools, irrigation ditches.”

Noncombatants may think of water last when calculating the items and weight a warfighter must carry, but water is both one of the most important requirements in the field – and one of the heaviest. It also creates some of the worst logistics nightmares. Efforts to lessen that by using water purification systems are hampered by the size and weight of current equipment, as well as strict federal regulations on water purity. Nevertheless, hauling five-gallon jugs of water with them is not an acceptable modern alternative for dismounted mobile infantry formations that have to keep moving.

“LOE-4 reinforced the criticality because water became a key planning factor for the force we worked with during that 96-hour experiment,” Goulding said. “As in Afghanistan, there was lots of water around, but we need to turn it into palatable water to eliminate the requirement to resupply Marines as frequently as we do. Frankly, one of the big take-aways of the experiment in July was we spent an awful lot of time and precious helicopter sorties moving water around to Marines in rough terrain. And once you resupply them with water, you negatively impact their mobility, because what they don’t drink or put into their Camelbaks, they have to carry.

“The biggest problem right now is the standard for water purification; the federal fit-for-human-consumption test is very rigorous and a hurdle we need to overcome for tactical water purification. I’m a little concerned about that standard, having been raised in the era of putting an iodine tab into a canteen and shaking it. But our experiment did demonstrate how we need to reduce our dependency on moving bottled water around the battlefield and putting Marines at risk in convoys and helicopters delivering it when the Marines are co-located with local water sources.”

While the individual Marine’s Table of Equipment (TE) varies by job and mission, Lt. Col. Kevin Reilly, SYSCOM program manager-Infantry Combat Equipment, said the basic pack includes:

•            a lightweight helmet and cover with Night Vision Goggle mount

•            NVG

•            body armor – Modular Tactical Vest and Enhanced Small Arms Protective Insert (ESAPI) front, back, and side plates

•            fire-resistant gloves, combat shirt, and trousers

•            knee and elbow pads

•            infantry combat boots

•            socks and silk-weight underwear

•            utility belt

•            dog tags

•            intrasquad radio

•            hand-held flashlight

•            Individual Load-Bearing Equipment pack – small or large

•            first aid kit

•            bayonet

•            weapon

•            magazines and ammo

•            ear plugs

•            hydration Camelbak system

•            pouches on body armor

•            smoke grenades or other grenades

•            optical scope for weapon

•            possibly a laser pointer for night use

“Marines also often carry GPS devices, but not notebook or laptop computers; you don’t really need computers for most Marine missions,” he added. “Batteries often are carried in an assault pack so they don’t bulk your legs and cause other problems.”

2nd Lt. Jameson S. Payne, 3rd Platoon commander, Company G, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, listens to a conversation through the new DTCS networked radio during a four-day experimental testing evolution at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows while in support of the 2010 RIMPAC exercise. USMC photo by Lance Cpl. Ronald W. Stauffer.

Largely missing from that list, however, are most of the electronic devices that require large numbers of batteries. Which devices any given Marine carries will depend on the type and length of the mission, but almost certainly will exceed the five items on Reilly’s “basic pack” list. In addition, MCWL is looking at new devices and capabilities the average Marine soon may be adding as standard equipment.

Goulding described four such possibilities, tested during LOE-4 with encouraging results, as part of a new, robust experimental communications suite he said “frankly knocked our socks off.”

“The first piece was something we have been working on for a long time – the Distributed Tactical Communications System, an Iridium [satellite phone]-based push-to-talk radio voice comm device with limited data capability for simple preformatted messages and embedded PLI [position location information], which is a critical piece,” he reported.

“The second component is TrellisWare, a commercial self-forming, self-healing network we think is a real potential game-changer. We issued this small radio (about the size of a BlackBerry) to every Marine in the experiment. Each then becomes a repeater, so as long as one Marine can see another, the network can expand without the vulnerabilities of a satellite network. And it also provides PLI.

“Third was a small Panasonic Toughbook computer, about the size of a small novel, issued to the company down to the squad leader. On that computer, we displayed a software package called the Tactical Ground Reporting System (TiGR), developed by DARPA. The Army is using it in theater now at the brigade level, but we wanted to push it down to the squad. Based on Google Earth, using our training regime, we gave them a map of the area in which they were operating, with their locations plotted; they could then plot enemy locations as they learned them and use that as a planning tool. It exceeded our expectations, filling a gap we now have with MarineLink, which doesn’t work well at that level.

“The fourth piece of this tactical communications family is the Mobile Expeditionary Tactical Network-Company Level Operations Center Enabler. The vision is to provide wide satellite network Ku-band communications as a big pipe for the company commander to higher headquarters – for LOE-4, on a Navy ship 25 miles at sea – and exchange with them graphics, map data, things that would not ordinarily fit in the small pipe of tactical radios.”

The individual gear carried by members of the Corps’ special operations command – MARSOC – differs significantly from their big Corps brothers, beginning with the pack itself, which provides additional carriage and storage. A smaller helmet offers greater vision and hearing capabilities, while Full Spectrum Battle Equipment (FSBE) body armor allows greater mobility than the standard Corps Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). Special operators also carry the M4A1 Close Quarters Battle Weapon, with suppressor, and laser optics and pointers.

A Ground Unmanned Support Surrogates (GUSS) robot carries a simulated casualty during a four-day experimental testing evolution at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows. Unmanned vehicles like Guss could carry part of Marines’ combat load. DoD photo by Mass Communications Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley.

Both, in turn, have little in common with the standard Army infantry pack.

“They are quite different. The Marine Corps went with the Individual Load-Bearing Equipment pack and the Army with the MOLLE [Modular Lightweight Load-Carrying Equipment], an external frame versus our internal frame. We tried the MOLLE pack and had severe problems with it; the Army later modified theirs,” Reilly said. “We’re presently looking at our pack again, because it would be nice to have a government-owned product rather than a commercial design, which causes problems with sustainment.

“Today we look at thermal loading, which we didn’t before, as one reason we are driving to a new pack. Body armor was not a big issue when we fielded the ILBE pack, but now we need a pack that will integrate with body armor to provide the most protection and comfort, including heat dissipation, while still being big enough to carry what the Marine needs. So in the future, you may see more merging of Army and Marine Corps approaches, along with SOCOM and other service designs, to find what best suits Marine Corps requirements.”

Meanwhile, ongoing efforts are reducing individual component weights by an ounce here or there, he added, but evolving technologies and changing missions are the primary drivers on what ultimately goes in the pack.

“The Corps is committed to reducing the weight on the individual Marine as much as possible, but it is a delicate balance between capability, protection, and survivability to allow the warfighter to move better to get the mission done,” Reilly concluded. “The commandant reminds us about reducing that load as much as possible, and Afghanistan brought this to the forefront because there are so many foot patrols, which drives you to reduce weight to reduce stress.

“But capability is so much advanced over what Marines used to have; miniaturization has given them incredible capabilities at the squad level. So it is a very difficult balance between capability, survivability, and maneuverability, balancing weight against providing the best capability on the battlefield.”

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...