“One of the latest things in the commercial world is soft shell materials,” Chan continued. “Because the old GORE-TEX® type of fabrics, while they work very good for what they were designed to do – which is to provide a level of ‘breathability’ in heavy rain conditions that was not available with coated materials – the problem is that if you’re ‘hoofing under load,’ it’s not really suitable to be worn all the time. And anyone who has worn it knows that. So what we’ve done is introduce a line of soft shell materials that complement the uniform. So, under cold weather movement applications, you wear this soft shell overgarment over some of these lightweight insulation layers – i.e. some of the silk weights that we have in the system. So the inner layers wick moisture away from your body.”
Noting that the new combination “moves moisture ‘orders of magnitude’ better than some earlier designs,” Chan pointed to “one test we run where we train SEAL operators up in Kodiak, Alaska. And what they do is to wear their PCU system, walk into the 39 degree ocean for four minutes, and then walk out. And they are shown how, if configured properly, you can then shake off your moisture, change your socks out, and ‘walk the system dry’ in an hour. So the bottom line is that the risk of hypothermia goes down dramatically.”
The PCU has already been fielded “in limited quantities” to elements of the SOF community, including SEAL components.
“We’ve taken some of the lessons learned from the SEAL community and continued to upgrade the system. And now we’re about to go with our first big buy for SOCOM. And that will go to the Rangers and the Special Forces community,” Chan said.
Other LEP activities being conducted by the SOF team at Natick focus on handwear and footwear requirements.
“One of the things we need is a cold weather mountaineering type boot,” he added. “But the problem is that every cold weather mountaineering boot made in the world today is made in Italy – every one of them. And the Barry Amendment precludes us from buying those boots. So we need to find a domestic producer. We have now identified that producer and we’re working with them, which highlights the fact that a lot of what we do depends on relationships. We’re working with this vendor to develop a cold weather winter mountaineering boot with no RDT&E dollars. So this guy is taking money out of his own pocket to build this boot. First, because he’s a patriot. And second, because he senses that there’s a business opportunity here that he can capitalize on, because there’s no competition. When we go out and seek a winter mountaineering boot, they are the only ones who are going to be able to walk in the door – because it’s got to be domestically built and he will be the only one who can do that.
“The other thing is that we can leverage buying power. We know for a fact that the Marine Corps is interested in buying a cold weather winter mountaineering boot. But they are under the same constraints that we are under the Barry Amendment. So we’re saying to them, ‘Watch what we do. We’re going to develop this cold weather winter mountaineering boot and we’ll allow you to buy on the backside of that. We’ll also work with you to make sure your requirements are met in this process.’ So on the back side we’ll both have a domestically-made boot that we can buy while the vendor will have a market that might be five to 10 times bigger than the SOCOM market,” he added.
The second category under the SPEAR ORD is the Modular Integrated Communications Helmet (MICH). The efforts include both a ballistic helmet as well as communications that integrate with the helmet for the user.
“MICH is a classic example of how we were able to spin something off to the bigger services,” Chan said. “Specifically, the Army’s Advanced Combat Helmet (ACH) is the MICH helmet. It started off as a SOCOM development program. It was better than what the Army had at that time. And we were able to allow them to leverage what we had done in that area and go out and procure the helmet – avoiding the costly development process and other complications that go along with a full development program.”
The SOF MICH effort also includes integration of a communication system for both maritime and ground elements. With integrated microphones and compatibility with a variety of radios, the system combines both passive hearing protection and active hearing enhancement. The active enhancement allows the operator to hear whispers across a room. But internal electronics shut off the amplifiers for loud blast noises, making the system a passive set of earmuffs.
“A grenade could go off, it won’t damage your eardrums. Yet you’ll still be up on comms since the amplifiers come back on and restore comms as soon as the noise goes away,” Chan said.
Chan noted that the maritime version, which is diveable to 66 feet in salt water, works very nicely, “but the ground system still has a few bugs that we’re still working out.”
The third area covered under SPEAR is the Body Armor Load Carriage System (BALCS), which encompasses a variety of body armor vests, ballistic resistant materials, load bearing equipment, and backpack systems.