Some of the most critical equipment items provided to Special Operations Forces involve their personal gear; those items of clothing and protective equipment – both ballistic and environmental – that ensure their ability to survive and function across their complex operational spectrum.
The overall “capstone” program that governs the vast majority of personal gear being fielded to Special Operations Forces now and in the near future is known as Special Operations Forces Personal Equipment Advanced Requirements (SPEAR).
“Within that realm of SPEAR, we have a variety of capability areas that we focus on,” explains Fred Chan, program manager, SOF Warrior Protection, SOF Special Projects Team, Soldier Systems Center. Located at Natick, Mass., the SOF Special Projects Team reports to the Program Executive Officer for Special Programs (PEO SP) at USSOCOM.
Team efforts are currently focused on 10 categories of SOF personal equipment under the SPEAR umbrella Operations Requirements Document (ORD): Lightweight Environmental Protection; Modular Integrated Communications Helmet; Body Armor Load Carriage System; Lightweight Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) Protection; Integrated Laser Ballistic Optical Protection; Target Identification and Acquisition; Signature Reduction; Physiological Management; Command, Control, Communications, Computerization, and Intelligence (C4I); and Survival Equipment.
The first area, Lightweight Environmental Protection (LEP), includes clothing, handwear, and footwear required for cold weather operations.
According to Chan, some previous efforts under LEP resulted in development of a cold weather “clothing suite” around the 1996 period. Describing it as a black fleece jacket with several different commercial types of undergarments, he noted that it was far superior to anything that had been fielded to that date.
“Well, the bottom line was when they got into Afghanistan and really went up to elevations, it wasn’t enough,” he said. “Guys were calling us up, literally from foxholes on a satellite phone, saying, ‘You guys have got to work on the clothing system because we’re cold, wet, and that isn’t good.’ So we took that information and developed a new, next-generation cold weather clothing suite called ‘Protective Combat Uniform’ (PCU).”
Crediting the 300-weight fleece fabric in the 1996 cold weather clothing suite with many performance advantages over any previously-fielded material, Chan acknowledged that it was “a bit on the heavy side” and “did not compress well, making it difficult to deploy on some missions.
“So with the PCU we’re taking all the latest, current materials that are now available,” he explained. “We’re taking new generation fleeces that compress to about half the size and are actually warmer and wick moisture better than that original 300 weight Polartec®. So, instead of being five or 10 years behind the commercial power curve, we are now neck and neck with the commercial power curve in terms of introducing new materials.