Infantry: Rebooting Boot Development

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July 17, 2009: Over the last few years, the U.S. 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.

Last year, 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 heals 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.

Over the last 20 years, it has been discovered (the hard way) that the varying size of the sand grains in different deserts requires different filters for vehicle engines and power generators. It's difficult to make one filter that will deal with different kinds of sand. With boots, it may be a different situation. The U.S. Marine Corps developed a new desert/jungle boot (with the help of U.S. Army clothing developers) and equipped all marines with it. The army still issues either desert or jungle boots. 

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, 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.

 


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