Infantry: Frostbite Is Your Friend


April 6, 2011:  One of the generally unpublicized "secret weapons" American troops have in Afghanistan is much better Winter clothing. This often proves critical, especially in the hilly areas of Afghanistan, where it gets extremely cold. So cold, that the Taliban cannot handle it, while the better equipped Americans can.

The Afghans don't normally have cold weather clothing for this sort of thing. Their traditional solution, during these days, or weeks, of very cold weather, is to stay inside as much as possible, and try to keep the fires going. But when the Americans come out to fight in the Cold Weather, the Taliban gunmen have a choice between staying home and possibly getting arrested, or going out to the hills and getting frostbite, or worse. Some U.S. commanders pray for really cold weather when Taliban are being sought. That's because the Taliban can stay hidden, up in the hills, for a while. But if it get cold enough, they either have to come down to the village (and risk capture or death), or stay up there, and endure cold injuries, or worse.

American Army cold weather gear has been getting better for decades. But it was about two years ago that it was realized that the latest stuff (the "Generation III" set) was really outstanding. It kept you warm, even if you were running around in freezing weather and working up a sweat. And it wasn't bulky or itchy. It was good, no great, stuff.

For nearly a decade, U.S. Army has been tweaking and testing a new Winter clothing ensemble (officially called , Generation III of the extended cold-weather system or Gen III ECWCS.) The new wardrobe handled temperatures from minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit to above freezing (45 degrees Fahrenheit, or -45 to 7 degrees Celsius). The wardrobe consists of an interchangeable twelve-piece clothing system that can be worn in layers depending on the weather and the mission. The layers are lightweight and use modern fibers that allow sweat to escape while keeping body heat in. All the clothing is commercially available for Winter sports and activities. The army is making bulk purchases. Only the items likely to be worn on the outside have to be given some kind of camouflage pattern. And, yes, some of the smarter and wealthier Taliban have gotten the commercial versions of this gear. But only individuals, not groups of gunmen.

The new Gen III ECWCS is actually lighter, and less bulky, than the older Winter clothing (Gen II ECWCS), and doesn't itch, like some of the GEN II stuff did. The GEN III items are also quieter. The older gear tended to "swish" at times, which at night would let the enemy know you were in the area. The GEN III gear consists of two long sleeve undershirts, an outer shirt and thermal pants, a fleece jacket, a water and wind resistant jacket and pants, a waterproof windbreaker, a waterproof cold weather jacket and pants, a neck gaiter, a face mask, and gloves designed to allow easy use of weapons and a cold weather parka and pants. The GEN III gear is lightweight, commercial grade stuff. The army basically went to see what was available for Winter sports (especially camping and mountain climbing), and adapted the best of it to combat use. This meant making sure the clothing was compatible with body armor and other combat equipment troops would have to wear.

The army was following the experience of SOCOM (Special Operations Command), which has a budget for experiments in using civilian gear. SOCOM operators have been using civilian cold weather gear for years. Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan began getting the new gear over four years ago, as part of the field testing program. The response was very positive. Now everyone has it.

It actually gets pretty cold and nasty in Iraq during the Winter. Even down south, after the sun goes down in January and February, the temperature often drops to below freezing. Up north, in the mountains, it gets much colder. But in Afghanistan, up in the mountains, it gets bitterly cold, similar to what you encounter in the North American Rocky Mountains, or Korea (where the troops finally got Gen III two years ago, and found the new gear able to withstand bitterly cold Winter weather common to South Korea.)




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