Marines, Afghan National Police stay vigilant in southern AfghanistanThe debate over mobility versus protection and complaints from the field is by no means new. However, the recent focus on “returning [the Corps] to its high-mobility, high-tempo expeditionary roots” make it seem to be the source of newly focused attention.

Marine Corps System Command, Marine Corps Capabilities Directorate and others are participating in the Marine Corps Load Effect Assessment Program and “Lighten the Load” initiative.

“A middleweight fighter can fight one weight class down or one weight class up,” said George Solhan, Director of Marine Corps Science and Technology, echoing the sentiment of Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos, who originally compared the Marine Corps to a middleweight boxer.

Whatever the latest underlying rationale, the need to do something about the constraints of load to troops on the ground has been pressing for years. Complaints from those maneuvering in cumbersome, mandatory armor are virtually incessant, and concerns from medical professionals and about increasing musculoskeletal injuries scarcely less frequent. Put in simple terms, there are many experienced warfighters who believe they’re less likely to be shot in the first place without all that gear.

I recall a conversation during some training in 2005 wherein several salty Marines from 1/5, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion and the Scout Scout Sniper School opined that their casualty rate would actually go down if they were allowed to doff their armor. One staff sergeant, superbly conditioned and a veteran of numerous deployments, put it candidly.

“You can’t [expletive] fight if you can’t [expletive] move, or if you’re exhausted. Listen dog, we’re in awesome shape but if [the helicopter] sets us down too [expetive] far out, or in the wrong [expletive] place, and we have to run a couple hundred meters to hit a house, I’m smoked and so are my Marines.”

I’ve heard similar complaints from soldiers and Marines attempting to close with the enemy outside the wire in Afghanistan, especially those who were operating at higher altitudes. In fairness, there are arguments to requiring armor, but there can be no doubt there is a problem.

In April, Army and Marine Corps leaders testified before Congress about the progress toward lightening the burden on troops. Topics included female body armor, the Scalable Plate Carrier (SPC) and new technologies.

The Marine Corps has chosen not to pursue female-specific body armor like the Army’s Gen III Female Improved Outer Tactical Vest (FIOTV), asserting their SPC is sufficiently adjustable to provide armor protection for any size and shape Marine. Brig Gen. Eric M. Smith, head of the Marine Corps Capabilities Directorate, said frankly: “We will not sacrifice protection for comfort.”

The Army is shipping 600 sets of the FIOTV into Afghanistan in a couple months. The female body armor comes in eight sizes and reduces wear weight by 6 pounds.

Brig. Gen. Ostrowski, head of PEO Soldier, mentioned the development of new protective materials like nanotech, which could potentially make body armor lighter without sacrificing the capability of stopping projectiles and similar projects from Picatinny Arsenal, N.J.

Researchers and academics have studied the physical wear these loads have on troops’ entire bodies. The RAND Corporation released its study to that effect a year and a half ago, and Infantry Magazine was talking about it in 2003. In fact, there are official reports, anecdotal accounts and press releases dating almost back to 2001 addressing the need to balance protection and mobility.

Both the Marine Cops and Army have made major investments in renewable technologies to subtract the weight of batteries from a pack. These include solar panels that a Marine can simply roll out of his pack.

The Office of Naval Research (ONR) released a video in 2012 addressing “Lighten the Load” efforts to improve Marines agility and lethality without sacrificing protection.

The message mandates three focus areas:

1) The ability to out-think the enemy. “Massive amounts of data and countless intelligence reports bombard Marine analysts…” is certainly true but can be a very bad thing when it results in over thinking things or causing a unhealthy emphasis on information by volume. An increased surveillance/reconnaissance ability is an awesome force multiplier. Unfortunately, in an age where we are more and more dependent on technology — and hesitant to take action without its nod of approval — it could just make things even more cumbersome at the tactical operations center.

2) The ability to outmaneuver the adversary speaks directly to the impact of “Lighten the Load on individual Marines. “Total maneuver dominance” is a compelling catchphrase for staff meetings and is no doubt important. However, it isn’t until the 5 minute mark that we see body armor. It is disheartening to see them devote just a fraction of time to load-out versus tech-related and logistical emphasis.

3) The ability to outperform the adversary. Again, officials discuss logistic footprints and weapon development. This speaks to lethality and sustainability. Also, the Future Immersive Training Environment at the 7:54 mark seems promising.

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