Infantry: Feet On Fire

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October 12, 2011: The U.S. Army recently completed a very quick competition to select a hot-weather combat boot for troops in Afghanistan. This search took only a few months. The last such selection, which ended ten months ago, took two years and resulted in a splendid new combat boot for combat troops in Afghanistan. There was one problem. The boot was built with cold weather in mind. But it turned out that during Afghanistan's very hot Summers, this boot left feet too hot, and quite uncomfortable. Thus the race to find a hot weather boot. Now troops will go off to Afghanistan with two pair of boots, one for each of Afghanistan's two seasons (one is very hot, the other is very cold, and in between each of these main seasons there is a few weeks of deceptively mild weather for which either boot will do.)

But for most of this year, there was only one choice. Earlier this year, the U.S. Army 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 950 is 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 are to wear their Belleville 950s.

By July, the manufacturer delivered 25,000 pairs of the Belleville 950s, which immediately began showing up in Afghanistan. That's when the heat problem manifested itself. The army promptly sought out a boot as sturdy as the Belleville 950, but cooler in hot weather. Two candidates were selected. One was a warm weather version of the Belleville 950 (called the 990), while the other was a similar design was a militarized version of the Wellco Hybrid Hiker. Together, these two manufacturers will deliver 64,000 pair of the warm weather boots by next March. In the meantime, these boots will also be available for purchase at the firm's websites. Many troops prefer to buy a pair of new boots they will eventually be issued, to try them out, and know what to expect when they get their government issue pair.

For the Belleville 950s, because of the urgent need for these boots, they were not available to the civilian market until later this year. 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.

 


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