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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 5, 2007
No: 07-04

Feeding the individual warfighter

By Gerald Darsch, Director, CFD, NSRDEC & Kathy Evangelos, Program Integrator, CFD, NSRDEC

Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MRE) A Soldier adds water to his Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MRE). More than 6,000 Warfighters, Soldiers and Marines both, have contributed to the MRE improvement program since 1992.
Click for Larger Photo

The human need for food, clothing, and shelter has been understood throughout the history of civilization. Providing for these very basic yet essential needs for the Warfighter brings with it challenges and constraints that many take for granted.

Within the U.S. Army Materiel Command (AMC), the science and technology required to provide combat feeding systems, cutting edge clothing and individual equipment, personnel and cargo airdrop, and shelter on the battlefield for today's 1.2 million Warfighters is the mission of the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC) in Natick, Mass.

As long as there are wars, there will be boots on the ground; and where there are boots on the ground, there must be combat rations. Make no mistake; the U.S. has the most lethal weapons platforms in the global arsenal. The most flexible and adaptive member of that arsenal has been and continues to be the American Warfighter. Without the effort to bring fuel to that individual Warfighter, the military machine would come to a grinding halt.

The research, development, testing and engineering of combat feeding systems is the mission of the NSRDEC's DoD Combat Feeding Program (CFP). The NSRDEC is committed to providing revolutionary, state-of-the-art science and engineering in the development of combat rations, field food service equipment and total combat feeding systems.

That task is accomplished by more than 100 dedicated professionals who specialize in the fields of food science, food engineering, chemistry, microbiology, nutrition, nutritional biochemistry, behavioral science, food packaging and materials science, electrical, chemical and mechanical engineering. All joint service combat rations and Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force food service equipment and systems are managed by the NSRDEC, while science and technology for Army managed food service equipment and systems is successfully transitioned to the Product Manager Force Sustainment Systems. Numerous pieces of equipment and systems have transitioned to the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps over the last three years dramatically enhancing food service capability and exceeding customer expectations.

The NSRDEC is responsible for the family of combat rations to include individual, group, assault and special purpose rations. For the purpose of this article, we will focus on the MRE or Meal, Ready-to-Eat. Imagine for a moment, if you cooked a meal, stored it in a hot, stifling warehouse, dropped it out of an airplane, dragged it through the mud, left it out with bugs and vermin, and ate it - three years later. What would happen? Nothing - if it were an MRE or "Meal, Ready-to-Eat."

A bit of MRE history The MRE replaced the Meal, Combat Individual, which some still refer to as the old "C-Ration," beginning in 1980.

From its year of introduction to 1987, the MRE contained such memorable items as: Ham and Chicken Loaf, Smoky Franks (aka "the Five Fingers of Death"), Chicken a la King (or Chicken "a la Death") and the ever popular freeze dried pork, beef and potato patties. In 1988, eight of the original 12 entrees were replaced with entrees that were slightly more identifiable, to include spaghetti and meat sauce.

The MRE had the opportunity to go to war in Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

Unfortunately, the initial feedback on the acceptance of the MRE wasn't pretty. It wasn't the four letter words we heard, but the combination of 4-letter words! Gerry Darsch, then chief of the Ration Systems Division, was called to the Pentagon. It was "suggested" by the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, that we explore how to "FIX IT!"

A Joint Services Operational Rations Forum (JSORF) was conceived and its first meeting was held in 1991 with the objective of redesigning the MRE. JSORF membership included a voting member from each of the Services and the Defense Logistics Agency. The path forward was clear; we needed to refocus our business philosophy from the "Father Knows Best" mentality to one based on "Warfighter Recommended, Warfighter Tested, Warfighter Approved."

The commitment by Philip Brandler, then director of Food Engineering, and now director, NSRDEC, Darsch and the professional staff at NSRDEC to the Warfighter was to dramatically improve the quality and variety of the MRE by insuring this standard individual combat ration would not remain stagnant but would reflect changes through component enhancements every year.

In order to execute this plan, industry was brought on board immediately by involving the Research and Development Associates, an organization comprised of commercial vendors who contribute to the family of combat rations.

The plan was clear; the NSRDEC would lead the charge, survey Warfighters in the field and identify what food items should go into the MRE. From this data, MRE components would be obtained from the commercial sector or developed at the NSRDEC by Judy Aylward, senior food technologist and MRE Project Team Leader.

Prototype MRE's would be assembled by the industry and include those new items. Field test sites and Warfighter test units would be locked in by the NSRDEC's Operational Forces Interface Team under the leadership of Max Biela. Two groups of Warfighters would contribute to the field test. One group would consume the current MRE as the control and the other would evaluate the new prototype menus and components.

Surveys for the groups would be developed, collected and analyzed under the watchful eye of one of the NSRDEC's senior behavioral scientists, Dr. Matt Kramer, of the Product Optimization and Evaluation Team, and the data collected from the troops in the field by a team of behavioral scientists, food technologists, and NSRDEC volunteers. This entailed living with the Warfighter in the field for up to ten days.

The results of the field test would be presented to the JSORF and the most highly rated prototype entrees, starches, desserts, beverages, candies and snacks would replace the least acceptable items in the current MRE. These decisions would then be presented to the combat ration industry to alert them of changes that will be made to the MRE. Finally, the NSC, under the leadership of Ray Valvano, would prepare and coordinate the necessary procurement documents and forward them to the Defense Supply Center Philadelphia (DSCP) to initiate procurement. From the moment a Warfighter recommends a new MRE component to the time DSCP receives the documents from the NSRDEC is less than 12 months!

This process began in 1991 with the first new components appearing in the MRE in 1992 and continues today. From 1993 to 2006, over 165 new items have been included in the MRE.

Memorable moments in the MRE improvement program include:

1992................Hot sauce in every menu;
1993................The Flameless Ration Heater;
1994................Last year for freeze-dried fruit (too expensive);
1996................From 12 to 16 menus and nutritional labeling;
1997................From 16 to 20 menus and beef jerky;
1998................From 20 to 24 menus, to include 4 vegetarian;
1999-2006.......A wide variety of new entrees, starches, candies, desserts, snacks, beverages;
2005................The hot beverage bag;
2006................The ergonomically designed drink pouch for dairy shakes

In the past two years, 29 new items have been approved for the MRE for 2007 and 2008. The field test with Warfighters to evaluate new components and menus for the 2009 MRE took place in Yakima, Wash., during October 2006. 23 new items have been assembled in prototype menus. The feedback from these Warfighters will determine what new items will go into the MRE in 2009.

Did you know that of the 12 original MRE entrees, the last one removed was the Ham Slice - finally replaced by Chicken Tetrazzini in 2000? And spaghetti and meat sauce still remains one of the favorites through the years because it has been reformulated and improved based on Warfighter expectations.

All in all, more than 6,000 Warfighters, Soldiers and Marines both, have contributed to the MRE improvement program since 1992. As many of our Warfighters have stated, "you may never please all of us, but you sure are pleasing most of us." NOTHING goes in or out of an MRE without critical Warfighter input. Working closely as a team, we have now produced the most customer driven, customer focused ration in the history of DoD.

Darsch, now director of Combat Feeding, and Kathy Evangelos, combat feeding program integrator, had the opportunity to travel to the U.S. Army Central Command area of responsibility (AOR) in 2005 to obtain direct feedback from our boots on the ground relative to MRE improvements as well as feedback on two new ration concepts that were being field tested in Iraq and Afghanistan. Information obtained from Warfighters indicated that both the MRE improvements and two new ration concepts were "on the mark."

In addition, Sgt. 1st Class (retired) Mike Acheson, now a food technologist on the Combat Feeding Team, volunteered for two 180 day deployments to Iraq. The first with the 101st Airborne Division as they moved north into Iraq in 2003, and the second which ended in May 2006. Acheson not only performed his expected duties but served as a valuable conduit for Warfighter feedback on continuing to enhance our family of combat rations.

Other members of the Combat Feeding Team who deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom included Chief Warrant Officer Steve Moody and Sgt. 1st Class Celestine Burnette, both representing the NSRDEC in an admirable fashion, as well as providing valuable insight on advancing total asset visibility for tracking and monitoring Class 1 and fine tuning the two new ration concepts, the First Strike Ration (FSR) and Unitized Group Ration-Express (UGR-E).

The FSR is designed for the first on the ground, first to fight, highly mobile warfighter, and the UGR-E is designed for remote locations and small groups on the asymmetric battlefield. Both were undergoing field testing in country. As a result of feedback obtained from Warfighters, these two rations have now been approved and are on an accelerated path to procurement in the first quarter of fiscal year 2007 and will be "Coming to a Theater Near You.TM"

Besides the MRE, the entire family of combat rations, and in particular, the UGR "A" version and "Heat and Serve" undergoes continuous improvement every year based on Warfighter feedback. The FSR and UGR-E, after fielding, will also enter the improvement programs to insure variety and the inclusion of science and technology drop-ins to further enhance both rations.

Warfighters also contribute during the design and testing of developmental items. New components and packaging as well as individual equipment are evaluated by Warfighters to insure functional and operational capability and true value on the battlefield. Some science and technology advancements will be transparent to the Warfighter while others will be more obvious as a result of improved quality, increased variety, or the inclusion of new components in rations.

In the not too distant future, rations will contain naturally occurring constituents such as probiotics, which are beneficial bacteria such as those found in yogurt, and, nutraceuticals, which are small nutritional organic molecules. It is anticipated that these constituents will provide improved nutrition, cognitive and physical performance enhancement using novel nutrient delivery systems, e.g. buccal (between the cheek and gum) delivery of nutrients based on scientifically proven studies.

Rations will be packaged using polymeric films relying on nanotechnology and contain enticing aroma emitting films. These will enhance consumption as well as protect and maintain extended shelf life to insure wholesomeness and safety. New food processing methods such as high pressure processing, pulsed electric field, and microwave sterilization will bring more variety and components with higher quality than those processed today via thermostabilization.

Self heating packages, new package designs, as well as heating and cooling technologies for rations and beverages will further enhance combat feeding systems for the Warfighter.

Woven through all these improvements and new technologies is a single and very simple common thread: feedback that constantly seeks to increase the satisfaction of the Warfighter. Rest assured the advancement of combat rations and combat feeding systems will continue to be driven by revolutionary advances in science and technology, many of which will be pioneered by the NSRDEC. The NSRDEC's Combat Feeding Team remains committed to insure our world class Warfighters continue to be provided with world class rations - from deep sea to deep space - to outlast and outperform any adversary anywhere.

This page last updated on 10 May 2006.