Infantry: Getting In Shape For What Matters

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March 12, 2011:  For the first time in 30 years, the U.S. Army has changed its physical fitness tests. This is yet another reaction to the realities of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The new test puts emphasis on readiness for combat, and this will be measured by a new combat readiness test. The new physical training puts more emphasis on speed (which is used more in combat, as in sprinting for cover or a new firing position), flexibility (lots of squirming around in combat, going through windows or over obstacles) and strength (troops are carrying more weight, and there's always been a lot of heavy lifting in combat.) What is deemphasized is long marches (trucks and helicopters have made that rare) and distance running (another very infrequent demand these days). The new training strives to make troops stronger and more flexible. One goal here is to make it easier for troops quickly recover from physical stress.

While much of this new physical training system is based on combat needs going back a century, some of it is in response to more recent changes. For example, working conditions for the infantry have changed considerably in the past two decades. The biggest change is the equipment that must be carried. Until the 1980s, you could strip down (for actual fighting) to your helmet, weapon (assault rifle and knife), ammo (hanging from webbing on your chest, along with grenades), canteen and first aid kit (on your belt) and your combat uniform. Total load was 13-14 kg (about 30 pounds). You could move freely, and quickly, like this, and you quickly found that speed and agility was a lifesaver in combat. But now the minimum load carried is twice as much (27 kg), and, worse yet, more restrictive.

Over the last eight years, this has already translated into some dramatic changes in training. In Iraq, troops found they were not in the best condition to run around with all that weight. Plus, the vest constricted movement, and that took time to adjust to. Commanders complained about troops not being properly trained, and that led to a series of changes in basic and unit training. The big change in basic was to condition troops to handle the heavy weights they would be carrying, for extended periods of time. This was particularly critical for non-combat troops (especially those operating convoys) outside of camps (where you usually didn't have to wear armor and combat gear.) New exercises were developed. Infantry troops got several months of additional training after basic, and had plenty of opportunity to adjust to moving around wearing 14 kg or more of gear.

The officers who ran basic training got a lot more feedback from the front, about things recruits needed to know. So more emphasis was placed on brawling (for subduing captives), clearing rooms, new first aid techniques and using GPS and other electronics found in military vehicles. Old items, which surveys found were rarely used, were dropped from basic.

This all began when more essential equipment was added in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The biggest, and heaviest, problem is body armor. Although the new armor offered better protection, it was heavier and bulkier, thus inducing fatigue and hindering mobility. This often led to battlefield situations where a less tired, and more agile, infantryman could have avoided injury. Military and political leaders usually do not appreciate this angle. But the troops do, as it is a matter of life and death for them.

Currently, the lightest load carried, the "fighting load" for situations where the troops were sneaking up on the enemy and might be involved in hand-to-hand combat, is 28.6 kg (63 pounds). The "approach march load," for when infantry were moving up to a position where they would shed some weight to achieve their "fighting load", is 46 kg (101 pounds). The heaviest load, 60 kg (132 pounds), was the emergency approach march load, where troops had to move through terrain too difficult for vehicles. As in the past, the troops often ignored the rules and regulations and dumped gear so they could move, or keep moving.

In Afghanistan, the problem is made worse by the high altitudes (up to 5,000 meters) the troops often operate at. The researchers found that in Afghanistan, even though the infantry were in excellent physical shape, troops would sweat nearly 59 cl (20 ounces) of fluid an hour while marching at high altitudes in bright sunlight in moderate temperatures. That meant more weight, in water, had to be found to keep these guys going.

While troops complained about the new protective vests, they valued it in combat. The current generation of vests will stop rifle bullets, a first in the history of warfare. And this was after nearly a century of trying to develop protective vests that were worth the hassle of wearing.

Some commanders are not responding well to the new physical training and test. Soldiers have been marching long distances for thousands of years. But that has changed, it really has. In the past, troops have carried heavy weights in combat, but they did not have to be as mobile as modern troops. The troops appreciate the new physical training more than some of their commanders. Part of this is that the new routines emphasize some exercises that resemble yoga and Pilates. Both of these physical training methods are relatively new in the West, but have long served to provide the limberness that is so vital for 21st century combat. With a war going on, the new ideas are gaining traction because they work. You can resist change, but you cannot halt it.

 


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