The U.S. Army has selected the Belleville 950 Combat Mountain Hiker as the new combat boot for troops in Afghanistan. The Belleville 950 has a stiffer and 20 percent thicker sole, designed to ease foot strain, and increase traction for troops crossing broken (often rocky) terrain while carrying typical heavy combat loads (over 30 kg/66 pounds). The upper portion of the Belleville 950 is water resistant leather. The Belleville 950s are not suitable for full time use, because of the stiffness. So troops will continue to use their current, less stiff and more padded, combat boots. But when they are heading out into the hills, they will wear their Belleville 950s.
Over the next four months, the manufacturer will deliver 25,000 pairs of the Belleville 950s. Because of the urgent need for these boots, they wont be available to the civilian market until later this year, at the earliest. This use of a commercial boot design is nothing new. Over the last decade, the army and marines have changed their attitudes towards combat boots. Instead of trying to design boots themselves, the military has recognized the superior design of commercial boots created for hikers, mountain climbers and outdoor activists in general. This has resulted in a new generation of combat boots that are more durable, and comfortable, than earlier generations of combat footwear.
Looking for boots particularly suitable for Afghanistan is nothing new either. Three years ago, for example, SOCOM (Special Operations Command) bought 10,000 pair of boots designed to survive use in Afghanistan. The Afghan rocks tend to tear boots up. The U.S. Army desert boots, used without problem since their first major workout in the 1991 Gulf War, rapidly fell apart in Afghanistan. By early 2002, soldiers were complaining that the boots were useless after a few months. The problem appeared to be that the boot soles and heels were built to deal with soft sand. Afghanistan has lots of sand, but also lots of sharp rocks, which tear the boot bottoms up. Apparently, the boot did not get extensive testing in rocky desert areas (which are not as common as mainly sand deserts.) Deserts have long been a major problem for developers of military equipment.
The troops have long sought their own solutions, quickly buying every brand of hiking and "assault boots" (for police and SWAT) out there. These cost $100-$150 a pair. Bates was one of the more popular brands being bought by the troops, and the U.S. Marine Corps turned to Bates for a new desert boot. SOCOM had Bates create the "Tora Bora Alpine Boot." SOCOM wanted a boot that could handle the rocks, as well as the temperature extremes in Afghanistan.
The Internet played a major part in the suddenly rapid development of new boot designs. Most troops are on the Internet, and many participate in online message boards, listservs or chat rooms where new discoveries can be rapidly talked about, and evaluated. The news is distributed quickly and widely. The military procurement bureaucracies have to respond to this, because the troops can also blitz Congress with tales of shoddy equipment. The bureaucrats hate that, so they now pay much closer attention to what the troops want.