As the Army shifts its operational focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, the equipment needs of its soldiers have changed dramatically. Where Iraq’s battlefields were almost exclusively urban, Afghanistan is a rural country with few real cities. Iraq is astoundingly flat and stiflingly hot during much of the year; Afghanistan, is almost entirely mountainous, with a harsh winter climate.
Troops patrol Iraq’s cities in heavily armored vehicles on an extensive road network that used to be thickly seeded with IEDs. Afghanistan has few real roads, and troops patrol by foot up and down primitive mountain trails and along narrow ridgelines chasing elusive Taliban fighters.
For Afghanistan, it’s all about lightening the soldier’s load, Brig. Gen. Peter Fuller, commander of PEO Soldier, told a group of reporters at Ft. Belvoir, Va. Fuller had on display a wide range of new clothing, equipment and weapons, all lighter versions of the kit soldiers took to Iraq. “Iraq was how do you stay cool. Afghanistan is how do you stay dry and warm… and every kid out there should have lighter body armor,” Fuller said.
As the Iraq war progressed, the Army added layer upon layer of armor until soldiers’ soon resembled a bomb disposal technician. The up-armoring made sense as the number one killer in Iraq was IEDs, problem was, all that armor meant troops were not very mobile, which was okay, because they didn’t really move around on foot all that much. In the mountains of Afghanistan, where IEDs are comparatively rare and brief, sharp, small-unit firefights against an elusive opponent are more common, all that body armor becomes a dangerously immobilizing burden. For Iraq, body armor was oriented to a soldier’s frontal arc, to provide protection as they barged into buildings and cleared rooms of suspected insurgents. In Afghanistan, troops are safer if they are lighter and more mobile and able to use the ground and natural features for cover.
With the tactical demands of the new battlefield foremost in mind, the Army is moving to shave almost 20 pounds off a soldier’s load by shedding the neck, groin, shoulder and side protection of the current body armor with a lightweight armor plate carrier. Lt. Col. Robert Myles, product manager for Soldier Survivability, made it clear that the plate carrier is exactly what it sounds like, it carries the Army’s ESAPI ballistic plates front and rear, it’s not an armored suit. The Army is fielding 500 of the 15 pound Modular Body Armor Vest plate carriers, currently used by Special Operations Command, to soldiers deploying to Afghanistan in the next few weeks.
The Army thinks its soldiers need a bit more protection than the special operations' MBAV provides, Myles said. So, the service is putting a collection of new industry provided plate carriers to the test, including the MBAV and a plate carrier currently used by the Marines. Later this month, soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division and 173 Airborne Division will spend two weeks in Yuma, Az., because the terrain there closely resembles Afghanistan, testing seven different vests, doing road marches, running and simulating small unit firefights. Based on soldiers’ feedback, the Army will then select their own plate carrier, and initiate fielding up to 100,000 plate carriers beginning later this summer. All of the vests being considered carry the same ballistic plates.
It’s not only in body armor that the Army is looking to shave pounds. The service is developing a new, lightweight version of the venerable M240B 7.62mm machine gun, a soldiers’ favorite, called the M240L, acheiving a nearly 7 pound weight savings by using lightweight titanium instead of steel (lightweight titanium is so scarce that it takes nearly 12 months from ordering to get the new machine gun). The Army is also moving from brass bullet casings to stainless steel which is 20 percent lighter bullet to bullet, considering that a 30 round M4 mag weighs one pound, lighter ammo can make a big difference. Brass is also getting scarce and more costly while stainless steel is cheap and plentiful. Soldiers also get new lightweight tripods for the machine guns.
The venerable M2 .50 cal heavy machine gun (if you’ve ever seen an M2 fired its probable more accurate to call it a lightweight cannon) is also getting the weight loss treatment. The new XM806 Lightweight .50 Caliber Machine Gun that is currently in development weighs 64 pounds less than the M2 and is more accurate to boot.