natick 1103 004_small.jpgEver since they tangled with the Red Coats, American generals have been giving their grunts more and more and more gear to lug -- from rations to radios, body armor to batteries. Now, for the first time, the Army has decided to junk the old uniforms and start from scratch."We're stripping the soldier down to his skin, and building out from there," said Jean-Louis "Dutch" DeGay, an equipment specialist at the Army's Natick Soldier Systems Center, which is supervising the seven-year, $250 million overhaul, dubbed Future Force Warrior, or FFW.One of the most obvious changes is that the new uniforms are unisex. The zipper has been extended, and the uniform's butt flap has been expanded, so GI Janes aren't literally caught with their pants down if they have to pee.FFW's body armor is probably the biggest improvement, however. It sits on a series of foam pads around the rib cage, so there's a 2.5-inch gap between the harness and the body. It keeps the GI cool. And it's almost imperceptibly light -- unlike today's bulletproof vests, many of which are about as comfortable as that lead apron the dentist makes you wear during X-rays. But the scarab-like shell can take five to seven direct hits from a machine gun, and it doubles as a holster for ammunition and grenades.It also protects the computer that future infantrymen are expected to rely on. Instead of the bulky cables that ordinarily connect the computer to a PDA or a helmet-mounted display, FFW is supposed to use "e-textiles" -- durable cloth, with wires woven in. The helmet will integrate night vision into a built-in, half-inch monocle, and bone-conduction microphones will replace radio headsets.At first, the sensors were metal. But tests showed that "some people's heads were literally too thick for that to work," DeGay said. Now, the metal has been replaced with a gel-based sensor that's sensitive enough to transmit pulse and breathing rates back to base, too.My Wired News article has details.

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