Exoskeletons and High Tech: Are We Missing the Point?

HeavilyLadenKit Up! has discussed the topic of lighter/better equipment several times over the last few weeks. It is a topic that inspires substantial debate, and not just in the US. From bionic exoskeletons that carry heavier loads than the unassisted Grunt Mk. 1 to making Marines middle-weight fighters, virtually everyone feels strongly about the topic (and rightfully so). Pounds equal pressure, pressure equals pain.

Personally I would like to see them make a damn decision on a camouflage pattern and then invest some money in some very basic things. Iron Man suits from DARPA may be nifty but I could confidently opine that troops on the ground would rather be issued pants with crotches that lasted more than a few days, and let’s be honest – if they do build exoskeletons, it will be SOF guys who use them. They’re never going to issue them to entire rifle companies, who would be just as happy to chase Muj without their junk hanging out.

I absolutely agree that specific female body armor is needed (anyone who disagrees should study the geographic variety of boobs), but I do not feature “lighter female kit” when it comes to rucks or LBE – lighter kit is lighter kit. I am by no means an expert, and I realize technological innovation is vital to retaining military superiority, but no amount of bionic suits and F-35s is going to completely eliminate the need to have dirty, tired men on the ground pushing rifles into the dark and dangerous places where vermin crawl. This is a fundamental axiom of warfare, and one that always seems relegated to second place when it comes to research and development.

In any case, this recent trend in coverage reminded me of an article written by author Pete Nealan on Breach-Bang-Clear a few months back. It offers an interesting (probably controversial) perspective on lightening the load.

Pete’s contention, put in simplest terms, is that we’re fighting too heavy and we’re not coming to grips with our opponent like we should be. There is a maneuver for cover, frequent dynamic inactivity (my term, for a lot going on but little getting done) and angles of fire, but little actual closing with the enemy. Part of this is due to risk averse leadership and weight. I would add to Nealan’s assertion and say it is also due to the overarching manner in which Americans fight – what MG Scales called the “Operational Offensive-Tactical Defensive” doctrine. More technologically advanced, frequently more agile but numerically inferior forces prevail by locating and pinning a larger, seemingly stronger enemy unit in place (often just by virtue of engaging it) then pounding it with superior firepower. This has been done from the patrol level in Afghanistan all the way up to battalion and division level during the invasion of Iraq. It is also why we are more successful in a ‘stand up fight’ than in a counter-insurgency, though obviously that is a gross simplification.

Method of engagement aside, weight always come into play, and not in a good way. Nealan:

Weight.  The average grunt now carries anywhere from ninety to one hundred twenty pounds of basic kit, ammo, weapon, comm, and sustainment.  All of this is now viewed as essential, and is often part of theater-wide SOP.  There are those who will argue that if you have a problem doing the job with all that weight, you just need to increase your PT.  I would argue that such an attitude falls under the purview of an old saying that I learned when I first got to Recon: “It’s easy to be hard.  It’s hard to be smart.” When you are carrying over half your bodyweight everywhere you go, and the enemy has just himself, a shalwar kameez, and his rifle, he has the advantage in maneuverability, regardless of how strong you are.  Add in that he knows the terrain far better than you, and you are at a serious disadvantage.

As I mentioned in my Making Marines Middleweight Fighters article, complaints about weight and its impact on maneuverability are frequent. I have suffered for it myself, and I was a POG! I can only imagine what the grunts feel like in the canyons up above 6,000′, or having to haul ass for a few klicks instead of a few hundred meters. As Christian said a couple years back, we are definitely better off than we were when the war began – but it does seem like every time we shave a pound off here with a lighter helmet we add a pound there with batteries or a new mandatory-wear thingamawhatsit.


I have a great idea. Let’s hold off on the construction of one Joint Strike Fighter and quit worrying about billions of dollars of “green defense energy” and just make sure every Army PFC and Marine Lance Corporal gets a a few extra days on the range and a pair of boots that are every bit as good as the ones SOF is wearing. Oh, and leave it to the boys on the ground to use METT-TC to determine whether they should wear all those SAPIs.

Nealan again:
As for PPE, I could also mention at least two Marines from 1st Recon who were shot dead even while wearing all their front, back, and side ESAPIs. Armor doesn’t ensure you won’t die, it just makes it harder to do your job.
In any case, Pete makes some great points about maneuver, weight, training, complacency and risk aversion…if you have a few minutes it is worth reading the original article.

Heavily burdened

About the Author

Kilgore & Call
Richard Kilgore and Jake Call have been writing on and off for Military.com for many years now. You can reach them at BreachBangClear.com or follow them on Instagram at @breachbangclear or Tumblr at http://the-mad-duo.tumblr.com/.
  • majr0d

    Good articles.

    Exoskeletons are sexy. Power is the long pole in the tent today (as they were almost a decade ago when I was evaluating them in the Infantry Battle Lab). They aren’t happening anytime soon. We are likely to see the “Powerloader” from Aliens before we see exoskeletons in combat. That’s because an exoskeleton at a base/ship has access to power that a grunt in the field does not.

    It’s annoying when grunts see all this “excitement” over exoskeletons when he’s still nursing a bad back form a tour or two humping his house on his back. Chalk it up to the nerd factor. Those that don’t realize the soul crushing weight of a ruck is a heck of a lot more important issue than getting experimental exoskeleton’s out of the lab and into a FOB they won’t see either.

    We do have two problems though.
    1. We carry too much stuff and the last decade of having vehicles nearby or operating from fixed bases hasn’t disciplined us to lighten the load. We carry too much because we can. When we start getting our ass kicked we’ll re-evaluate.
    2. We don’t pay enough attention to tactics and fieldcraft, Again, because of the above and it will change when we face a competent enemy that starts kicking our butt. Not saying our current enemy is incompetent. Our overwhelming ability to bring the hurt before we lose a fight makes it easier to be lazy. The next enemy that jams our GPS, shoots down our aircraft and starts maneuvering on us is going to be a nasty wake up call to those leaders that don’t pay attention to unimportant issues like reading a map, marksmanship, fire and maneuver, camouflage (the verb not the noun) etc.

    • n1hook

      I agree why the overburden. You create career threatening injury,joint issues and early arthritis.

      Take a page from Rogers Rangers,Rifle,Tomahawk,ammo,water,rice balls/pemmican or similar. Keep accessory kit to 20 lbs.

      How fast and how far could a Ranger,Marine,Army,SOFCOM go with a lighter load.

      Concentrate on resupply/atv/parachute.

      To go faster and further you need to be lightweight and not fatigued, for a lesser ammo load out have realistic training to make every round effective marksmanship rather than fire superiority.

      • slag

        With the long range engagements, you’re correct about marksmanship, A bud of mine who had unloaded his M16 into a still charging VC, was saved by a sniper from a wooded treeline, who when he collected his “confirm” said “What use is carrying a boxcar load of ammo if it doesn’t drop your opponent?”

        • n1hook

          Or short range instances reported of house clearing and m-4 not stopping terrorist in Iraq while house clearing. Either poor shot placement or needs something more than 5.56.

          300 Blackout might be the answer or 6.8 It is alsao why the pistol in .45 is used

          Remember WW1 the germans thought they were facing massed machine guns when attacking the Canadians. It was a unit trained to hit what they aimed at and to fire rapidly with bolt action rifles.

          • Virgil_Hilts

            n1hook…could you possibly be thinking of Marines at Belleau Wood in WW1 ? Probably not: the word Marine in NO WAY sounds like the word ‘Canadian’. Anyway…the Marines opened up on the Germans at around 800 yards with 1903 Springfields…a distance they had trained at. The sights on the 1903 may be adjusted all the way out to over 1000 yards. As the Germans advanced they noticed that men were dropping here and there. They thought that these were long rounds striking them incidentally….until the numbers of men falling made it QUITE CLEAR that this was aimed fire! Their training was only out to about 300 yards. Needless to say. the Germans had a Bad Day.

          • n1hook

            No I know about that action I was referring to the Canadians refer to A Rifleman Went to War by H.W.McBride an American who entered the Canadian Army to get in the fight in WW 1

            He was an officer in the American national guard in Canada he only could get in as an enlisted man. His Battalion commander had an innovative training program reduced size targets and short times to acquire it like IPSC.. They decimated the Germans.

          • Virgil_Hilts

            Thanks so much for the info. I WILL find and read the book. My bookcase is filled with military history, from the well-known to the somewhat arcane…if that;s the right word. Two of the best in the second category are Walter Lord’s book ‘Incredible Victory, concerning solely the Battle of Midway, ‘and the amazing ‘How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed History’ by Erik Durschmied…concerning the pivotal moments in a series of engagements, from Troy to the Gulf War. The section on Agincourt is stunning. Another excellent one is Sebastian Junger’s ‘WAR’ He spent 15 months with a single platoonm US Army, in Afghanistan. If you want a book list, post to me at cozyhome3@comcst.net. Be glad to sent you the list.

          • n1hook

            Sounds like a good read.

            Here are a few of mine:

            Red Cocaine by Joseph D Douglass

            KGB The Inside Story by Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky

            The Sword and the Shield by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin

            The Terror Network by Claire Sterling

            A Magnificient Fight The Battle for Wake Island by Robert I. Cressman

            Force Recon Command by Lt.Col. Alex Lee

            Just a few from my 4 bookcases

          • DB Cooper

            The original 1903 had a flip up leaf site that was marked out to 1800 yrds. Troops use to train on how to employ their rifles against the enemy at long range using plunging fire. This harrassed attacking soldiers and helped break up massed attack formations. There is leathal ammo out there for the 5.56 but the lawyers (who never get shot at) won’t let the military use it. Personally I am not confident in the 855A1 qmmo because its rear half is made of cold pressed bismuth-tin powder. I have been to gear making factories and most gears are made with cold pressed powdered steel then baked to harden. Pre baked gears can be crumbled to small peices with one hand. I just cant see what they are doing is going to produce a round that can be made to reliably stay structurally sound during the shock of firing and impact.

    • Slag

      Weren’t the stealth planes visible to the older radar that most every other country using?

      • DB Cooper

        Slag, No they were not. The soviets/russians claimed that they could detect them with the over the horizon radar they used to detect missile launches from the US. No proof they could actually do this was ever given.

  • Tim Randle

    I got lucky in my career, and never had to go to war. Went to a JRTC rotation, and I was pushing 120 pounds (radio, batter, laser, etc). Add LCE and weapon, and I was damn near my body weight. AGs, medic, RTO were in similar straits. I can’t imagine live rounds, extra mags, frags, smoke, etc.

  • S.G

    I couldn’t agree more with this article. A simple look back into the history books reveals countless examples of light weight, agile, and fast forces defeating enemies who were less flexible. Take a look at the Chinese or Korean rebels during the Japanese occupations. Wearing comfortable or climate appropriate clothes, carrying only a sack of rice and weapons, they were able to move fast and navigate difficult terrain. Whereas the Japanese were burdened by their massive amounts of equipment and couldn’t move quick enough when under fire. An even better example of lightweight fighters kicking some serious ass were the Viet Cong. They carried very little, moved swiftly, and wreaked havoc on the heavier conventional force. We need to start thinking more like insurgents. Our SOF guys have pioneered it, but now it’s time to put these proven practices to use.

  • zap5

    I wounder how much weight could be saved with titanium used for rifles and machine-guns, it might cost a lot initially but it would be a one time cost as the titanium could be reused 20 years later when the weapons wear out .

    • Joshua

      Some but not a whole lot. The M4A1 is already very light. The most recent thing I can think of that chose titanium was the M240-L which if I remember correctly(correct my numbers if I am remembering wrong) cut 5lbs off the weapon.

    • majr0d

      Titanium is great but it REALLY cuts down on the life of a weapon the Mk48 a titanium version of the M240 only has a fraction of the service life of an M240.

    • Adam

      A titanium rifle would cost be 50 times the price and that’s a conservative estimate. The optics and other accessories would almost certainly not be titanium. It would be a negligible improvement and for the money you could send every Marine to Jump school buy them new gear and dinner. You could also just buy a lighter rifle altogether or lighter components. Polymer stocks, modular rail systems, polymer magazines. All proven.

  • Russ

    They carry all that shit because they are not necessarily fighting a combined arms doctrine and I suppose because of risk aversion. Leadership is not willing to risk using supporting arms and would rather blow up hundreds of troops with IEDs than risk an overrun/massacre/capture scenario. So our people carry every contingency with them. Funny how on D-Day’s anniversary, you will be hard pressed to find a photo of a soldier humping all that as they took it to the Krauts.

  • Doug

    As I’ve always said, technology should enhance your capability, not define it.

  • Mike Perry

    If you look at the American soldiers disembarking the landing craft on June 6, they were carrying too much gear.

    • Frank Nelson

      Yep, you’re quite correct. In fact much has been written about one of the major causes of the dead at Omaha was specifically linked to each soldier exiting the landing craft with 120lbs on their tired backs. Most reported being exhausted from attempting to stand in landing craft for 2 hours. Success eventually came when soldiers dropped all their gear (which they never went back for) and attacking up the bluffs. Marshall wrote about much of this in the Soldiers Load so none of this is new and I’ve been writing about it since 1972. Not to compare myself to anyone like Marshall. It seems to me that when the weight problem is unsolvable the actual pounds aren’t the real problem. If we don’t look to our senior officers as the cause I’ll read my last article on my death bed in 2030 about excessive weight we’re carrying in Mexico and how something must be done… Only massive defeat which results in the death of senior officers will change the way we do things.

  • will

    Obeyed the rules my first deployment and took everything all the time. Second deployment I dropped my side sapis and used the lighter Army kevlar instead of the Marine Corps helmet. I tried to cut down on weight because I began getting hip pain which now turns out to be two herniated discs. Thanks to ridiculous weight for no reason my back is trashed for the rest of my life. Units should be able to dictate load but that may not even help with the risk aversion already talked about.

    • majr0d

      nailed it.

      Senior military leaders won’t educate politicians and the public about the excessive costs of a casualty adverse mentality. Instead they weigh troops down with kit. BDE and higher commanders shouldn’t be dictating what the individual soldier is carrying. That’s for the company and below with some spot checking from BN.

  • Len Ganz

    I’m thinkin it’s time to go back to mules.

    When I was in Nam, I just kept dumping stuff I didn’t feel I needed (PRC13 wasn’t one of them). No flak jacket (didn’t stop bullets), no hard hat (that might have been dumb) and not much food (no Army rations at all).
    Len Ganz

  • moondawg

    I sometimes thought that we were overloaded in the Nam, and we didn’t carry half the weight grunts currently hump. Often if we only planned on spending no more than 48 hours, we just carried our water, a few selected Cs, LBE, ammo and a poncho liner. Really not that bad and easy to move when you had to. I don’t know how the guys today do it. I do know I made it through 20 years without trashing my low back, hips are knees. Mostly I just lost my hearing.

  • DB Cooper

    Since the war started the number one reason for medical evac from both war zones has been orthapedic injuries.

    David, to make the crotches last all they have to do is add a gossit. Its a diamond shaped peice od cloth in the crotch that allows for free and non binding movement in every direction. To see them go to Daluth Trading Co’s website.

  • peckinpah

    I agree that we should back to lighter tactics and training. Lord knows I gave a ruptured disk and both my knees to the Corps. I understand that the Corps didn’t have enough vehicles to properly transport everyone which explains the endless humping we did. It seems that the more time goes on the more these poor lad’s are having to carry.