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SSC-Natick Press Release

U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center-Natick
Public Affairs Office
Kansas Street
Natick, MA 01760-5012

Contact: Chief, Public Affairs Office
(508) 233-5340

Date: February 2, 2004
No: 04-03

Study says combat load too heavy

NATICK, Mass. -- Nowhere in Afghanistan did Lt. Col. Charles Dean see the folkloric 120-pound rucksack reputed to be carried by a dismounted infantryman in combat, but what these soldiers do carry continues to weigh too much.

Dean, an infantry officer serving as the Army's liaison to the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), presented findings of a study on the modern warrior's combat load at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass., Nov. 20.

He field trained and then led a team of seven carefully selected Airborne Rangers who volunteered to collect combat load data this past spring from paratroopers within the 82nd Airborne Division operating in Afghanistan.

They weighed combat loads and inventoried individual items of equipment carried by 764 out of 1,305 paratroopers assigned to the infantry rifle companies within Task Force Devil. Team members then packed the identical gear, rehearsed with the units and finally served as members of rifle platoons and squads within the task force on 15 separate dismounted combat missions against the enemy. Almost all of these operations included combat helicopter assault landings.

"If we want to reduce weight and bulk, you can throw a gazillion dollars into technology, but weight today is twice where it should be, and you can't reduce weight by technology alone," Dean said, who served at Natick as the Operations and Customer Interface director before his assignment at MIT. "The solution is to get the weight off the Soldiers. The reality is to accept that some things have to come off the guy's back."

He said the study, sponsored by the Center for Army Lessons Learned, collected historical information to help units in training, those going overseas into combat, and the people who research and develop new equipment.

Major findings from the study are:

- Soldiers have increased capabilities, but these continue to increase their weight burdens. It's weight, not capabilities, that wear out troops.
- Vehicles should be used to carry certain less essential items to reduce combat load.
- Body armor needs to be lightened. Its protective ability is well-documented, but it's uncomfortable and still heavy.
- Modern load carriage should continue to be improved.
- Soldiers are easily exhausted in extreme operations because of the climate and terrain. Daytime temperatures in Afghanistan during these springtime operations reached 116 degrees F. Nighttime temperatures plummeted enough to feel frigid.

"I think we can drop 10, 20, 30 pounds off these guys by paring down some items that they are currently carrying as long as these items are readily available when needed in a hurry," Dean said. "If we can offload some items, then we can work on reducing the weight of the remaining items through technology. The big monkey is to look at logistics and redesign logistics practices to get the weight off Soldiers."

The last time a comprehensive battlefield load study was conducted was in 1942 when the Marines executed their Making Island raid, according to Dean.

He said this recent study in Afghanistan appears to have been a first for the Army. Times have changed with better equipment and more of it.

Standards developed for the Army field manual titled "Foot Marches" printed in 1990 list maximum weights troops should carry for a fighting load, approach march load and emergency march load, figures determined with help from research at the Natick Soldier Center and U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine.

A fighting load is everything worn or carried except a rucksack and should be held to less than 48 pounds, according to the field manual. The next level, approach march load, adds a light rucksack and should not exceed 72 pounds. In the worst-case scenario, emergency approach march loads require a larger rucksack, raising the total weight to 120-150 pounds.

Past research has provided more insight into combat loads. A British study from the 1920s concluded that the fighting load should not exceed 40-45 pounds, and S.L.A. Marshall, author of the 1950 book "The Soldier Load and the Mobility of a Nation," advised that the combat load should remain less than about 40 pounds.

Viewed another way, the load should not exceed 30 percent of a person's body weight when carrying an approach march load. Dean's team weighed and photographed troops at every level, from wearing only their basic uniforms and boots to what they carried for their emergency approach march loads for 29 different positions in rifle companies.

After reviewing the data, the average rifleman's fighting load was 63 pounds, which meant he was carrying on average 36 percent of his body weight before strapping on a rucksack. The average approach march load was 96 pounds or 55 percent of average rifleman's body weight, and the emergency approach march load average was 127 pounds or 71 percent of average rifleman's body weight.

Riflemen carried less weight than some soldiers, such as 60mm mortar squad leaders who on average carried emergency approach march loads of 142 pounds or 97 percent of the average mortar section leader's body weight.

Soldiers wore an approach march load most of the day, according to Dean, and even when not carrying a light rucksack, their fighting load at all times averaged more than 30 percent of their body weight.

"We were careful to get enough data to be significant," Dean said. "We're pleased we brought home enough data for the Army and Soldier Systems Center to use to better help the American soldier."

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This page last updated on 23 January 2004.