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UPDATED (The Whole Story): Army to Field New Pack for Afghan Ops

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The Army is set to field a new combat backpack that meets the emerging needs of Soldiers fighting in the steep terrain and remote outposts of Afghanistan.

The so-called “medium ruck” uses technology from today’s mountaineering equipment and tactical packs and combines it with the specific needs of Soldiers doing rotations of up to three days at observation posts, long patrols or helicopter assaults where a trip back to the forward operating base may not happen for up to 72 hours.

The new 3,000 cubic inch-capacity backpack will offer Joes a better option for missions that don’t require the 5,000 cubic inch-capacity modular lightweight load bearing equipment, or MOLLE, ruck or the 2,000 cubic inch “assault pack.”

“We talked to the Infantry Center and they were starting to get some rumblings about needing something in between for Afghanistan,” said Lt. Col. Mike Sloane, the product manager for Soldier clothing and individual equipment with PEO Soldier. “Before, a lot of those missions were being conducted by special operations forces and certain light units that had specialized equipment. But now you’re having some of the ‘Big Army’ moving in and they need something to accommodate this capability gap.”

Officials at PEO Soldier told Military.com in a wide-ranging interview at their Fort Belvoir, Va., headquarters that the service’s equipment engineers began looking into developing a mid-range pack in February after talking to Joes from the 173rd Airborne Brigade who said they had a “void to fill” when it came to carrying their loads into combat.

News of the new pack comes on the heels of comments from senior Pentagon leadership, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, that some of the Army’s current equipment may not be suitable for Afghanistan and could be contributing to Soldier fatigue and injuries.

“In Iraq, people weren’t carrying a lot of rucksacks, they were carried on the vehicle,” said John Kirk, the lead engineer for MOLLE systems at Natick Soldier Systems Center, Mass. “But now [in Afghanistan] they’re carrying a lot of loads on their back and the MOLLE large is a little bit too big.”

Natick later surveyed a “focus group” of 17 Soldiers from the 173rd and asked them to show engineers the packs they used most in combat. Natick officials were stunned to see that out of 17 packs displayed only two used the MOLLE, and the remaining 15 were made by 11 different manufacturers.

“It wasn’t even like we could say ‘this particular brand A meets their needs,’ ” Kirk said.

So Natick engineers set to work on putting together the perfect midsized ruck – call it the Af-Pack – that combined some of the most appealing features of the commercial packs Soldiers actually used and matched them with emerging requirements coming from the infantry gurus at Fort Benning, Ga.

Three prototypes have been developed so far, but engineers have yet to settle on a particular frame to help stabilize the pack’s load. The medium ruck will have two separate horizontally-aligned pockets on the front, each with separate pockets and dividers inside. The sides of the pack sport MOLLE webbing to accommodate add-on pouches and accessories and the bulk of the pack is comprised of one main, top-loading compartment.

Engineers are still evaluating whether the pack should have a hybrid suspension system that uses a rigid backing – one that is just foam and another that actually has a cavity built into it to fit better on a combat-loaded Soldier.

“We’re trying to look at being compatible with that rear plate of the body armor,” Kirk said. “The rear plate needs to be cradled in this suspension system.”

Engineers want to deploy the three prototypes to the 173rd in Afghanistan for testing and select a final design by the fall of 2010, Sloane said. He’s working with the Infantry Center to finalize a requirement for the pack and if all comes together, Joes could see their new pack before next winter.

“With the recent concern about this gap, we said ‘hey, we’ve got this solution’ and so we’re looking to accelerate the evaluation of these rucksacks,” Sloane said.

And if everything comes together like officials hope, “we may be able to pull a couple months out of there,” Sloane added.

-- Christian

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