Infantry: SOCOM Keeps Innovation Alive

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June 19, 2016: While most of the U.S. military has seen its budgets cut since 2009, SOCOM (Special Operations Command) has not. As a result SOCOM has become the main source for new infantry weapons and equipment. SOCOM has long done this because their development procedures are much less restrictive than in the other services. The army and marines always kept an eye on what new stuff SOCOM had developed or adopted and how it performed in combat.

One of the less publicized areas of equipment innovation is combat uniforms. SOCOM has been a pioneer here as well and with the army and marine with budget woes SOCOM is the only ground combat force still developing and delivering new combat uniforms. SOCOM is looking into using new materials to make combat uniforms more durable and better able to handle extremes of heat and cold as well as heavy rainfall. To that end SOCOM is seeking to improve the existing, and pretty effective, Gen III ECWCS cold weather clothing. SOCOM is also adapting some other new fabrics and civilian clothing to create more effective jungle (especially rain forces) uniforms.

The best example of how this works is to remember what SOCOM operators did after 2001 in trying out and evaluating lots of new civilian cold weather gear, mainly in Afghanistan, where it gets very cold in the mountains and there is often lots of snow. SOCOM had promising civilian cold weather clothing modified based on combat experience. Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan began getting the new gear in 2006. By 2010 the new cold weather clothing ensemble, which is officially called Gen III ECWCS (Generation III of the extended cold-weather system) was in wide use. The new cold weather gear handled temperatures from minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit to above freezing (45 degrees Fahrenheit, or -45 to 7 degrees Celsius). The new cold weather gear consisted 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. 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 was lighter, and less bulky, than the older cold weather clothing (Gen II ECWCS), and didn't itch, like some of the GEN II stuff did. The GEN III items were 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.

Since 2001 the American military, especially the army, has made many small improvements in the design and composition of its combat uniform protective (bullet proof) vest. To speed up the change the army made it possible for troops to report problems, and suggest improvements via the Internet. Since 2003 there have been a lot of traffic regarding problems and suggestions for female as well as male combat uniforms. Most of the changes suggested may seem minor but they mean a lot to troops in combat. For example, the number and placement of pockets is always a popular item. This has been changed several times and now complements the protective vest and the kind of stuff troops put in the pockets. Then there's the monochrome American flag patch, attached via Velcro that reacts to infrared light. This makes it easier to positively identify U.S. troops at night, without lighting up the area. There are several other Velcro strips for the attachment of patches and badges. Most of the pockets are closed with Velcro. The knee pads, which greatly reduce knee injuries for infantry, are now inserted in a pants pocket over the knees. Other changes involve the blouse collar ("Chinese" style, to keep crud out) and the closures on the blouse and pants cuffs (also to keep debris out).

There were also complaints and suggestions about uniform durability. Troops go through ACUPATs (the standard combat uniform) quickly, often after only a week of heavy combat, so the army is constantly ordering new ones. With the rapid feedback via the army website, and ACUPAT manufacturers ready to make changes quickly, troops often saw suggestions they made at the beginning of their year in Afghanistan or Iraq, incorporated in ACUPATs they receive near the end. This not only makes for a better combat uniform but does wonders for morale as well. SOCOM is also continuing to incorporate suggestions and new materials into the protective vests and helmets. For troops in combat a lot, improvements in this area are a major boost in morale and SOCOM has a reputation of paying attention and responding.

 


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