Kit Up!

Exoskeletons and High Tech: Are We Missing the Point?


HeavilyLadenKit Up! has discussed the topic of lighter/better equipment several times over the last few weeks. It is a topic that inspires substantial debate, and not just in the US. From bionic exoskeletons that carry heavier loads than the unassisted Grunt Mk. 1 to making Marines middle-weight fighters, virtually everyone feels strongly about the topic (and rightfully so). Pounds equal pressure, pressure equals pain.

Personally I would like to see them make a damn decision on a camouflage pattern and then invest some money in some very basic things. Iron Man suits from DARPA may be nifty but I could confidently opine that troops on the ground would rather be issued pants with crotches that lasted more than a few days, and let's be honest - if they do build exoskeletons, it will be SOF guys who use them. They're never going to issue them to entire rifle companies, who would be just as happy to chase Muj without their junk hanging out.

I absolutely agree that specific female body armor is needed (anyone who disagrees should study the geographic variety of boobs), but I do not feature "lighter female kit" when it comes to rucks or LBE - lighter kit is lighter kit. I am by no means an expert, and I realize technological innovation is vital to retaining military superiority, but no amount of bionic suits and F-35s is going to completely eliminate the need to have dirty, tired men on the ground pushing rifles into the dark and dangerous places where vermin crawl. This is a fundamental axiom of warfare, and one that always seems relegated to second place when it comes to research and development.

In any case, this recent trend in coverage reminded me of an article written by author Pete Nealan on Breach-Bang-Clear a few months back. It offers an interesting (probably controversial) perspective on lightening the load.

Pete's contention, put in simplest terms, is that we're fighting too heavy and we're not coming to grips with our opponent like we should be. There is a maneuver for cover, frequent dynamic inactivity (my term, for a lot going on but little getting done) and angles of fire, but little actual closing with the enemy. Part of this is due to risk averse leadership and weight. I would add to Nealan's assertion and say it is also due to the overarching manner in which Americans fight - what MG Scales called the "Operational Offensive-Tactical Defensivedoctrine. More technologically advanced, frequently more agile but numerically inferior forces prevail by locating and pinning a larger, seemingly stronger enemy unit in place (often just by virtue of engaging it) then pounding it with superior firepower. This has been done from the patrol level in Afghanistan all the way up to battalion and division level during the invasion of Iraq. It is also why we are more successful in a 'stand up fight' than in a counter-insurgency, though obviously that is a gross simplification.

Method of engagement aside, weight always come into play, and not in a good way. Nealan:

Weight.  The average grunt now carries anywhere from ninety to one hundred twenty pounds of basic kit, ammo, weapon, comm, and sustainment.  All of this is now viewed as essential, and is often part of theater-wide SOP.  There are those who will argue that if you have a problem doing the job with all that weight, you just need to increase your PT.  I would argue that such an attitude falls under the purview of an old saying that I learned when I first got to Recon: “It’s easy to be hard.  It’s hard to be smart.” When you are carrying over half your bodyweight everywhere you go, and the enemy has just himself, a shalwar kameez, and his rifle, he has the advantage in maneuverability, regardless of how strong you are.  Add in that he knows the terrain far better than you, and you are at a serious disadvantage.
As I mentioned in my Making Marines Middleweight Fighters article, complaints about weight and its impact on maneuverability are frequent. I have suffered for it myself, and I was a POG! I can only imagine what the grunts feel like in the canyons up above 6,000', or having to haul ass for a few klicks instead of a few hundred meters. As Christian said a couple years back, we are definitely better off than we were when the war began - but it does seem like every time we shave a pound off here with a lighter helmet we add a pound there with batteries or a new mandatory-wear thingamawhatsit.


I have a great idea. Let's hold off on the construction of one Joint Strike Fighter and quit worrying about billions of dollars of "green defense energy" and just make sure every Army PFC and Marine Lance Corporal gets a a few extra days on the range and a pair of boots that are every bit as good as the ones SOF is wearing. Oh, and leave it to the boys on the ground to use METT-TC to determine whether they should wear all those SAPIs. Nealan again:

As for PPE, I could also mention at least two Marines from 1st Recon who were shot dead even while wearing all their front, back, and side ESAPIs. Armor doesn't ensure you won't die, it just makes it harder to do your job.
In any case, Pete makes some great points about maneuver, weight, training, complacency and risk aversion...if you have a few minutes it is worth reading the original article. Heavily burdened Show Full Article

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