With extended deployments to tough combat zones like Afghanistan and Iraq, the Marine Corps -- and more recently the Army -- (and the Navy and Air Force, though those are not as "combat" driven as the others) have revamped their uniforms used in everyday operations.
The rugged terrain, urban operations, weather extremes and austere conditions of current combat zones have prompted uniform designers to take a much closer look at other industries to find user-friendly options, materials and design innovations for their forces. Love it or hate it, the camouflage of the Army's ACU might be off track, but it would be hard to argue that the uniform isn't packed with useful features that help a Soldier get at stuff he needs to do his job. Sure, there have been some durability issues with the stitching, but when's the last time the Army went as far as to put gusseted crotches in their BDUs?
Well, there's also another market for this technology that's bubbling up from the same folks who helped put more modern gear in the hands of specialized forces like SEALs, SF troops, Delta guys and Recon Marines -- among others. As the regular forces adopt shoulder pockets and chest rigs, for example, the spec ops community is pushing the envelope even further with new designs that will gradually trickle down to the regular Joes as the technology becomes more available.
One of the products I was introduced to at Blackhawk last week was their High Performance Fighting Uniform, or HPFU. They're pretty proud of this new product and it basically takes all the best whistles and bells, pockets and pouches, low-drag designs and modern materials available in the industry and packs them into a pretty innovative set of duds. Gusseted crotch, dual cargo pockets, articulated knees, a high-backed waist, padding pockets -- and that's just the pants. The HPFU also has a just-as-feature-packed jacket, and comes with a combat shirt that combines an FR-material in the chest and functional sleeves like the jacket. And there's even a nifty vest that can go over the combat shirt so it looks like you've got a full-on cammie jacket on when you go to the chow hall after a patrol -- it's Blackhawk's way of keeping gunny, first sergeant or master chief off your back.
But the high tech is more than skin deep.
Embedded within the uniform is Blackhawk's proprietary "Integrated Tourniquet System" -- a series of blood stanching bands that can lock off arterial bleeding in the arms, legs and ankles. It's a bit creepy, to be sure, but Blackhawk's clearly trying to put hardware into their software to save lives. View Photo SlideshowMake a Free Flash Slideshow
Company officials say the SEALs, with whom Blackhawk shares a close relationship, are wearing about 1,100 of the over $500 ensembles in combat right now. It's unclear what their feedback has been, but I'll throw in my $.02.
First, I pressed Blackhawk designers about the incorporation of fire resistant materials -- or lack thereof -- into the HPFU. Though their promotional materials state the uniform is made from "no-drip, no-melt" fibers --the arms and legs of the uniform are 70% cotton, 30% Nylon which they claim are woven in such a way as to make them flame resistant -- company officials were at pains to say whether their pricey HPFU was made with flame resistance in mind. Ironically, they touted the torso of the combat shirt's FR qualities, but that's going to be under body armor which incorporates its own flame and flash resistance.
Also, I can see that Blackhawk's heart is in the right place with the invention of its integrated tourniquet system and its incorporation into the HPFU, but my first impression with the thing is that it's not nearly as "Marine proof" as it needs to be. This is added weight and complication for a piece of kit that's supposed to be the epitome of simplicity.
Would I take the HPFU on my next embed? Maybe if I could be convinced of its FR qualities. It's a pretty sweet piece of gear and borrows heavily from the performance outdoor industry which is where I always felt the best gear is designed and made. We'll talk about their body armor systems in a later post, but if there's anything we can learn from the progression of that business segment of Blackhawk, it's pretty clear that when there are improvements to be made on a piece of gear, they don't hesitate to make them. So we'll see how the HPFU evolves. So far it's a pretty good start.