The Overburdened Infantry Soldier
Excessive weights carried by infantry soldiers impact physical and mental agility whilst dramatically increasing injury rates. Although the problem is an old one, we should tackle it with renewed vigour
Since there were first soldiers the weight they have carried has been subject to cyclical variation and much discussion. The upward trend that saw its zenith during operations in Afghanistan is now subject to a realisation that it is both unsustainable and undesirable.
The Recurring Problem of Overburdened Soldiers
The problem is not new.
In ancient Greece, Iphicrates recognised the disadvantage of overburdened soldiers and introduced the concept of an organised light force called Peltasts that emphasised mobility and firepower over protection to overcome the much heavier armed and armoured Spartans at the Battle of Lechaeum. During the Thirty Years War, Gustav Adolphus of Sweden (often called the Father of Modern Warfare) favoured the use of combined arms where mobility was emphasised.
During the many reforms after the Crimean War, weight on the soldier was studied in detail. The 1865 ‘Report of the committee appointed to inquire into the effect on the health of the present system of carrying the accoutrements, ammunition, and kit of infantry soldiers, and drill &c. of recruits.’ was followed up with a second report in 1868 titled ‘The Second report of the committee appointed to inquire into the effect of the present system of accoutrements and knapsacks on the health of the infantry soldier.”
A third report is available here, its introduction had an excellent summary of the problem;
The soldier must be well fed: he is. The soldier must be well clothed: he is. The soldier must be well trained: he is. The soldier must transport a reasonable amount of equipment and personal belongings, but there is a limit to his performing the dual role of beast of burden and fighting soldier
It also warned against believing mythical tales of long road marches carrying extraordinary loads, from Romans Legionaries to British soldiers in the Peninsular War, myths were debunked with facts and solid conclusions drawn using scientific methods.
The report concluded that the ‘fighting value of a soldier is in inverse proportion to load he carries’.
With improvements in load carrying (packs and pouches), the maximum recommended load for marching was approximately 27kg. Work continued on both reducing the load, tailoring those loads to the application and determining the best means of carrying loads.
The Boer War reinforced lessons about infantry loads, an 1899 extract from a CO’s reports stated;
As regards the kit a man should actually carry, my opinions are entirely derived from regimental experience as a company officer in three campaigns in India and as a Commanding Officer in this campaign. I am strongly of opinion that the less weight we put on our men’s backs the better results we shall get, and for two reasons:-
I believe that other things being equal in actual battle, the lighter equipped of two combatants, and the least encumbered by extraneous articles, will win the day; he is, at any rate, the best adapted to take cover or to get rapidly across an exposed zone.
I do not consider our men are naturally good marchers; British troops have never had that reputation, but with strict marching discipline they can be taught to march well, and the lighter they are equipped the easier it is to teach them. I have frequently heard the argument adduced that foreign soldiers carry “so much” therefore we must train our men to carry a like amount. I do not believe that many of the overloaded soldiers could fight a modern battle without throwing away a portion of their equipment.’
Reductions swiftly followed but by the start of WWI, fighting weights carried had risen back up to 26kg, in sharp contrast to the 27kg maximum recommended for marching previously.
Fighting weights were by now the same as previous marching weights.
Despite some action to reduce this, trench warfare meant an increasing need to carry hand grenades, gas masks and cold-weather clothing. By the end of the war, the average carried weights were approximately 30kg. Reports noted again and again that infantry soldiers were so encumbered they were only able to close with the enemy by virtue of supporting fire and one even attributed some of the failure of the Dardanelles campaign to over-encumbered soldiers.
During WWII, the same problems occurred.
In the initial assault waves at Omaha Beachhead, there were companies whose men started ashore, each with four cartons of cigarettes in his pack—as if the object of the operation was trading with the French. Some never made the shore because of the cigarettes. They dropped into deep holes during the wade-in or fell into the tide nicked by a bullet. Then they soaked up so much weight they could not rise again. They drowned. Some were carried out to sea but the great number were cast up on the beach. It impressed the survivors unforgettably—that line of dead men along the sand, many of whom had received but trifling wounds. . . . No one can say with authority whether more men died directly from enemy fire than perished because of the excess weight that made them easy victims of the water. . . . This almost cost us the beachhead. Since it is the same kind of mistake that armies and their commanders have been making for centuries, there is every reason to believe it will happen again.
After exposure to combat operations, weights tended to fall as soldiers discarded all that was not essential, the image below shows Polish soldiers at Cassino taking ‘fight light’ to the extremes!
Since then, there has been a regular round of studies, before and after conflict, from any number of nations that all conclude the same; infantry loads are too great. The distinction between ‘approved load’ and ‘actual carried load’ is also important to note; a lack of confidence in resupply reliability leads to a ‘just in case’ mentality and section and platoon equipment is distributed to individuals.
Iraq, and particularly Afghanistan, again pushed the carried weights up, recommended marching order weights were hugely exceeded in fighting order. Injuries and reductions in combat mobility were the results. The average carried weight for Operation HERRICK was a whopping 56kg (123 Pounds)
In 2011, an article in the British Army Review, and reported in the Daily Telegraph highlighted the problem.
Attacking the British strategy in Helmand, the officer claims that soldiers are now so laden with equipment they are unable to launch effective attacks against insurgents. The controversial account of the situation in Afghanistan appears in the latest issue British Army Review, a restricted military publication designed to provoke debate within the Army. Writing anonymously, the author reveals that the Taliban have dubbed British soldiers “donkeys” who move in a tactical “waddle” because they now carry an average weight of 110lbs worth of equipment into battle. The consequences of the strategy, he says, is that “our infantry find it almost impossible to close with the enemy because the bad guys are twice as mobile”. The officer claims that by the end of a routine four-hour patrol, soldiers struggle to make basic tactical judgements because they are physically and mentally exhausted.
The original article reproduced here, ends with a very interesting quote;
If we don’t work out now how we are going to lose that weight we will do the old trick of starting the next war by repeating the mistakes of this one.
The next war may well be against an enemy more able to punish our inability to reduce carried weights.
The Operation Herrick Campaign Study devoted a whole chapter to protection and ‘weight on the man’
This clearly recognises the problem of increasing weight driven by a reduction in risk tolerance and describes three key projects that are in progress to address the issue; VIRTUS, PAYNE and HERCULES, more on these later.
The Consequences of Too Much Weight
As noted in every single one of the studies going back to the Crimean War, soldiers perform the basic tasks of soldiering more poorly the more they are overburdened, it cannot be said any clearer than that.
The carriage of excess weight has three principal effect areas.
Load carriage will inevitably result in musculoskeletal and soft tissue injuries. Some of these injuries are due to accumulations of smaller injuries over time, common in those that repeatedly carry large loads. Foot blisters and subsequent infection, stress fractures, knee injuries, digitalgia and meralgia in the lower limbs, brachial plexus palsy (backpack palsy) and injuries to the pelvis and lower back all increase in line with increasing weight stresses and are often compounded greatly as weights increase. Mounted personnel, when dismounting from vehicles, can be subject to excessive stress and vibration-induced injury during long periods inside a vehicle can also be compounded by excess weights. Gender also impacts the types and incidence of injury when subject to excessive weights and many studies have demonstrated how this will be a significant issue as more roles are opened to women.
As the British Army has reduced in size, the proportion of soldiers medically downgraded due to excess weight carriage will be disproportionate to total strength, it is a problem we can ill afford, either on operations or across a longer span of time.
The reduction in short and long-term injury rates alone presents a compelling case for carried weight reduction.
Energy costs due to loads are commonly reported in terms of kilojoule (kJ) per unit of time or oxygen uptake. A number of studies have been completed that allows a reasonably accurate prediction of the energy cost of multiple activities in different environments. Comparing this with an individual’s maximum aerobic capacity allows some measure of sustainment capacity. Task intensity measured against individual capacity provides a good way of defining how weight can impact performance e.g. the more intense the activity the less time it can be sustained, and vice versa.
The graph on the right shows walking speed energy use at different external loads, from 20kg to 50kg. If the reference is a 20Kg external load, 3km/hr on a flat firm surface, increasing the weight to 30kg results in an energy requirement increase of 12% but if the weight is increased to 50kg, it goes up by 50%. This can be translated into rules of thumb for weights and speeds, characterised by the table below.
Duration task, terrain, climate, altitude and individual fitness will all have an influence but as one might expect, more weight makes every task harder and/or slower. Recent studies (Silk 2010) demonstrated an average decrease in soldier mobility performance of 1,5% for every 1kg carried. Another study (Basaan 2005) looked at the time to complete an obstacle course and found that for every 1kg increase in external load (between 15 and 42kg) the time to complete increased by just under 8 seconds.
Terrain accessibility is also a significant factor for overburdened personnel, the images above show soldiers having trouble crossing even small gaps unaided, speed across them is also clearly limited, presenting easy targets to enemy forces. Muscle fatigue will markedly decrease weapon accuracy, requiring a far greater weight of fire (and yet more weight to be carried).
In addition to physical factors, exhaustion from excess weight can reduce cognition and the ability to make sound decisions or operate complex equipment. When carrying heavy equipment it has been shown that overlooking visual clues to threats increases and decreases reaction times.
In summary, mental alertness will decrease with increasing weight, this again makes an overburdened soldier a less effective soldier and one that is more vulnerable to enemy action.
Strategies to Reduce Carried Weight
Whilst the absolute weight has increased over time the relative weight has remained, except for recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan where both have increased markedly. All this despite the advances in electronic miniaturisation, power density and logistics availability. It is, therefore, an enduring requirement to mitigate the effects of excess weight but given the recurring nature of the problem, it is abundantly clear that doing something about it is much more difficult than talking about it.
If we know increasing carried weight is a Bad Thing™ how can the problem be solved?
Quite simply there are four general approaches;
- Carry less stuff
- Make stuff easier to carry
- Make stuff lighter
- Get someone or something else to carry the stuff
Carry Less Stuff
Carrying less is paradoxically the easiest and quickest option yet the hardest to achieve in practice. Risk management was accurately described in the Herrick Campaign Study.
This is probably the most significant challenge that faces the Army in terms of ‘weight carried’ because it requires an organisational shift and unwavering support from the chain of command all the way up to the ministerial level. If local commanders are not confident that a risk-based decision to reduce weight by reducing protective equipment or carrying less water or ammunition will be backed, they will simply default to the lowest risk approach, regardless of mission success or even actual survivability.
Local commanders cannot second guess post-conflict litigation against the Human Rights Act or Coroners Courts judgements whilst making tactical or operational decisions. If we are to practice mission command, this means empowering local commanders to adjust weights as they see fit and eliminating the long-handled post-conflict legal screwdriver. Project PAYNE is underpinned by risk and tactical trade-offs and it is hoped that is fully supported by the chain of command all the way to ministerial level.
Make Stuff Easier to Carry
Weight in absolute terms needs to be reduced but there are other means available to make carrying it easier, more efficient and less injurious.
Training and Conditioning
In recent years there have been many advances in understanding biomechanics and how training and physical conditioning programmes can be tailored to both individual and collective requirements. Implementing individual training programmes based on soldiers specialisms and starting points may be expensive but if it yields lower injury rates and improved ability to cope with the excess weight it could yield significant benefits that outweigh costs. Modern load carriage equipment like Virtus are increasingly person-specific and this would simply be extended to include training.
As dismounted combat roles become open to women, this individual approach to training will be needed even more so.
Load Carriage Equipment and Carrying Smart
Weight is only one part of the equation, the carriage and distribution of that weight can either reduce or increase the impact. Tailoring equipment carried depending on the phase of an operation also allows weights to be mitigated, marching and fighting order (CEMO and CEFO of old) are well-established concepts and load carriage equipment reflects this. Project PAYNE sprung from Afghanistan observations and the dramatic increase in carried weights. Although some think the name is a humorous play on words, it comes from Fusilier Tom Payne, 11 Platoon, B Company, 6 Royal Welch Fusiliers, a soldier from WWII used to illustrate some of the points about carried equipment in the training materials.
It proposed a scalable and appropriate approach to both firepower and load carriage. Load carriage would include;
- Immediate Level 1 (IL1) – Vest
- Immediate Level 2 (IL2) – Belt
- Immediate Level 3 (IL3) – Daysack
- Support Level 1 (S1) – Bergen
- Support Level 2 (S2) – Holdall
Without going into too much detail, each level would hold different amounts of equipment that would be carried or dropped off at different stages in an operation. It is an intelligent approach to carrying only equipment relevant to the demand at any given point in time. Read more here
Although it predated Virtus, it clearly required a new system of load carriage equipment. QinetiQ provide a good overview of Virtus;
Project Virtus is aimed at delivering a new body armour system for infantry which will increase agility and make it easier to carry heavy equipment. Established by UK Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S), Virtus replaces the Personal Equipment and Common Operational Clothing (PECOC) project. As the foundation of infantry Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), Virtus will deliver an integrated head, torso and load carriage system with a built-in quick release capability. It will be used by dismounted close-combat soldiers including soldiers, marines and airmen involved on land, littoral manoeuvre and ground support to air operations.
One of the key features of Virtus is scalability.
The Scalable Tactical Vest (STV) can be used for load carriage without any armour; as a fragmentation vest with soft armour padding consisting of a composite granular material but no hard plates; as a plate carrier with no soft armour; or as a full body armour system with soft and hard armour. It is compatible with both Osprey and Enhanced Combat Body Armour. Any combination of front, rear or side plates can be employed.
The rest of the system is equally integrated and scalable.
A new, lighter helmet will provide increased blunt impact protection, face and mandible guards for certain roles and a shape that is designed to work with the armour and daysack so weapons can be comfortably used even in a prone position. One of the most radical innovations is an integral ‘spine’ – the ‘dynamic weight distribution’ system. The device is linked to the user’s waist belt and helps spread the load of the body armour, a Bergen or daysack across the back, shoulders and hips. A lightweight webbing system is designed to be worn under and integrated with the body armour. Both the daysack and Bergen are fully integrated with the rest of the torso sub-system. This ensures that they are carried close to the body preventing excessive movement of the load but without pushing the rear ballistic plate into the body. Both can be used in conjunction with the dynamic weight distribution system. Pouches are made from one piece of fabric and fold flat when empty, minimising profile and the possibility of snagging. The dynamic weight distribution system contains a hard spine that takes the load and is linked to a hip belt. This allows the soldier to transfer the weight of his load from the shoulders to the hips or the other way via an adjuster positioned in the small of the back. The Virtus helmet has a fixed shroud for the mounting of night vision goggles and a counterweight for neck comfort. Its fit can be easily adjusted in the same way as modern cycling and climbing helmets. The sculpted rear prevents interference with body armour or daysack when adopting a prone fire position. It provides more protection to the side of the head and is 350g lighter than the Mk7 it succeeds. The helmet can be fitted with both mandible guard and visor, or either, which provide face protection for crews in open vehicles such as Jackal or WMIK.
Of course, no new load carriage system will be without its problems and Virtus was no different but it is likely to evolve and improve and represents what I think is a genuine innovation. Above all, it supports the concept of scalability.
Read more here
VIRTUS and PAYNE aren’t enough on their own to get close to the objective, but they are important components of the journey.
This news piece about Afghanistan from 2006 illustrates the problem where trolleys might have been useful, members of the US 10th Mountain Division hauling water bottles with stretchers and a ‘bucket brigade’.
For the want of a wheel!
A trolley or handcart does not need to be the result of a huge research programme, the leisure and industrial markets have all the required components. There are also a number of manufacturers that manufacture similar products, the Handimoova and Wheelz for example (more Wheelz examples here). Zarges make large wheels and a handles for some of their larger boxes and for moving heavy loads over short distances, breaching stores or power tools in an urban context, for example, powered wheelbarrows would be useful, especially if they had a common battery with those power tools.
For supporting carriage over longer distances, there are a number of simple wheeled pack supports available, Carrix, Dixon Rollerpack and Monowalker for example. Simply put, wheels allow heavy loads to be carried over longer distances with less effort than carrying them in a Bergen (rucksack). Disadvantages include parasitic weight and difficulty in using them in difficult or mixed terrain so they would only really be useful on flat and firm terrain, anything else would make them useless, but for speed over ground and IF the terrain supported it, they have a lot to offer.
Now I will be the first to admit, they are somewhat lacking in credibility but if a glorified grocers trolly was good enough for the men that did the whole Arnhem thing, it really should be good enough for today. No doubt these are less practical but keeping an open mind and experimenting with means of reducing energy on long road marches, despite the equipment actually adding weight and having to be transported to theatre, cannot be a bad thing, they might work, they might not.
Make Stuff Lighter
The excellent UK Land Power blog collated a list of current infantry loads recently, click here to read it, broken down by category and in four groups;
- On the Soldier, 18.96kg
- Assault Order, additional 12.55kg
- Patrol Order, additional 16.26kg
- Marching Order, additional 16.17kg
On the Soldier and Assault Order together weigh 31.5kg, marching order tops out at just under 64kg. This is with the latest Virtus load carriage equipment ECBA plates and represents a ‘standard rifleman’. As noted in the linked article, absent from the list are radios beyond the Personal Role Radio, support weapons, ECM, weapons other than SA80, breaching equipment, Vallon detector, the Underslung Grenade Launcher (including FCS), 7.62mm link and various items of ISTAR equipment. It is therefore on the light side of what will actually be carried. So no matter what the weight reductions of some parts of Virtus, it is still some way off the accepted maximum of 40kg and target of 25kg for the ‘Energy Efficient Soldier’
Equipment carried can be broadly described as personal and collective.
Protection and Personal Equipment
For personal carried weight, the approach taken by ultra-lightweight hikers and backpackers can yield useful savings, so whilst cutting a toothbrush handle in half or spending a tenner on a 6g titanium spork might garner derision, it is worth bearing in mind that in the studies described above, a single kilogram saving provides a demonstrable mobility and cognition improvement. Every bit really does count. That said, there is only so far one can go with lightweight ‘life support’ type equipment, the real big hitters are protection, weapons and electronic equipment.
Lightweight plate inserts are also a promising avenue for weight reduction and materials technology improves.
Power and batteries are a significant proportion of soldiers carried weight. Communications, ECM and ISTAR equipment has a voracious appetite for power and this is compounded by different types of battery. Every watt of energy left over at the end of a mission is weight needlessly carried and if this energy is distributed across multiple battery types, the problem is compounded by leftover energy distributed in those multiple types. The small battery problem is a particular challenge; sights, illumination and other small devices in service variously use 1/3 AA, AA, CR123, CR2032 and CR17345 types. Potentially, on a single weapon, there are three of four different battery types.
This is before we get to the larger batteries, where thankfully, progress has been made, they are still heavy though simply because of the energy demand. Lincad has the excellent LIPS range which has evolved continually over several years and increased energy density so that fewer now need to be carried. Fuel cells may well provide useable weight reductions as they develop but seem someway far from a readiness for a combat environment.
Another promising means of stored energy and weight reduction is to take a systems architecture approach and here, the MoD may well be significantly ahead of the curve. I have written several times about the Land Open Systems Architecture (LOSA) and specifically Generic Vehicle Architecture (GVA) (here for more detail).
As can be seen from the diagram above, Generic Vehicle Architecture is one of three, Generic Soldier Architecture (GSA) is described as;
The GSA is a platform-specific architecture, the physical implementation of which is the Dismounted Soldier System (DSS). GSA defines the infrastructure to be implemented by DSS and the interfaces between it and the soldier’s role equipment. Architectural components and requirements that enable off-soldier communications and connectivity, including data sharing, between platforms, will be captured within the Land Open System Architecture (LOSA) Common Open Interface (Land) (COI(L)) Defence Standard.
Benefits are said to be;
- Enable ‘plug and play’ of legacy and future systems for soldiers.
- Provide interfaces that comply with publically available open standards.
- Promote third-party competition by providing modular components.
- Promote innovation and diversity.
- Allow incremental improvement of systems.
- Reduce the whole life cost of ownership across all Defence Lines of Development (DLOD)
- Facilitate technology insertion into existing systems
- Reduce the burden on the individual soldier from a weight, cognitive and thermal perspective.
- Make the best use of COTS.
- Improve operational effectiveness,
Both Ultra and BAE have recently demonstrated GSA compliant products with the BAE Broadsword Spine system looking particularly well developed. One of the key features of Broadsword is a centralised battery contained within the harness that is used to power all soldier worn electronics. One of the particularly innovative features is the inductive ‘wireless’ charging pad on the back. A soldier would simply charge the central battery by sitting in a vehicle seat equipped with a charging coupler. This is not dissimilar to the Bosch tools wireless charging system.
A new revision of DEF STAN 23-012 (Generic Soldier Architecture) was published in October 2020 and it seems the development of compliant solutions is accelerating, with a possible move to the USB 3.1 standard and various conventional and specialised military connectors for higher data rates and more power capacity. Integrated soldier electronic systems have a scope much broader than weight reduction but certainly, weight reduction via the elimination of duplication is a key part of the approach.
Small arms calibres and types is a tremendously complex (and somewhat emotive) subject but what Project PAYNE did was recognise that firepower must be tailored to operation type and environment. The concept of the one true ‘section firepower mix’ is false. In a complex counter-insurgency type mission, excess protection and greater amounts of suppression firepower may well be the optimum choice, for a conventional assault operation, different thinking may be required. Many have noted that whilst the 5.56mm LMG might be excellent for close urban terrain, at ranges in excess of 200m it is an excellent way of turning money into noise but very little else. Therefore, weight reductions may be obtained by simply changing the section firepower mix.
The SA80 is a heavy weapon, with an Underslung Grenade Launcher, Fire Control System and sight, it is even heavier. The UGL fire control system, especially, adds significant weight to the front of the weapon and is a good example where weight reduction obtained in one area (swapping the steel magazines for polymer ones for example) is then negated by added weight elsewhere. The A3 variant will reduce weight even further but it is still a heavy weapon and so as the British Army starts to look beyond the A3, weight should be one of the main selection criteria.
Polymer case technology also looks very promising as a means of weight reduction, Textron is working on conventional and telescoped rounds in a variety of calibres (5.56mm, 6.5mm and 7.62mm). In one example cited, using polymer cased ammunition resulted in a 12kg weight saving in a typical setting for an M240 team and a reduction of 39% over 5.56mm (200 rounds belted). Another example is the Textron 6.5mm CT Carbine that weighs 3.8kg; compare that to the SA80A2. PCP Ammunition also claims to have a working solution for polymer cased ammunition.
Putting aside the arguments about intermediate calibres, polymer cased (telescoped or conventional) offer the potential for significant weight savings and must be considered to be an important future technology for small arms.
Improving combat marksmanship through more frequent and realistic training is also a not unreasonable weight reduction strategy to pursue.
It is often the collective equipment that both piles on the weight and has less of an organisational focus on weight reduction; ECM, batteries, spare link, GPMG SF tripods, mortars and mortar bombs, Javelin/NLAW, section radios, breaching equipment, stretchers, ladders and a plethora of other equipment is added to the infantry soldiers burden.
Lighter GPMG’s are also available, likewise 81mm mortar baseplates (14% lighter). Both these weapons are arguably more valuable than any other and yet we have not pursued weight reductions via design and new materials with any great zeal. The US has recently developed a lightweight Javelin CLU that is 70% smaller, 40% lighter and with a 50% increase in battery life. It also has a range of other improvements, GPS and network connectivity for example.
Both these are available off the shelf and would require only minimal changes to support and training arrangements.
The much-missed 51mm mortar had a range in excess of 600m and weighed just over 6kg. When it was replaced with the 40mm UGL and flares, the ammunition ceased being manufactured, leaving a rather significant range gap. When the requirement for a lightweight infantry mortar was predictably rediscovered in Afghanistan, the MoD purchased the Hirtenberger M6-895 that weighed over 10kg. The individual bombs were also much heavier, and the UGL stayed in service anyway. This is a classic example where weight has increased for marginal capability improvements. There are alternatives to the Hirtenberger and it might be worth exploring these. The Le lance Grenade Individuel Mle F1 (or Fly-K) is in service with the French Army and uses a closed combustion chamber to propel a 51mm bomb (illumination, smoke and HE) to a maximum range of 675m. It weighs 4.8kg and has a range of interesting accessories for ambush and area defence use. Rheinmetall has also developed a digital aiming system that it claims increases the effective range to 900m. The Antos 60mm system, recently been purchased by Poland would be another alternative, at only 5kg.
A more radical approach to attacking the weight of communications equipment is to recognise that in a COIN environment, a deployable mobile telephone infrastructure or trunked mobile radio system like TETRA/TERTRAPOL might be perfectly acceptable in comparison with conventional systems. By deploying such infrastructure, especially TETRA/TETRAPOL that does not need a base station every 500m, the weight of receiving equipment can be reduced to that close of contemporary mobile telephones. TETRAPOL might not deliver high bandwidth imagery and live video but it is perfectly capable of managing end to end encrypted voice and text messaging. A single TETRAPOL base station can comfortably cover 25km and handle 2,500 users. The latest Airbus TPH900 handset has a 13-hour battery life, text and status messaging, vibrating mode, covert controls and location reporting and GPS, yet comes in at less than 1kg. By accepting the trade-offs of deploying a vehicle or container-based TETRAPOL base station, considerable weight can be shifted off the soldier. NATO used this approach in Kosovo and the Bundeswehr deployed similar systems to Afghanistan.
We might think TETRA/TETRAPOL is an old-fashioned system but it is reliable, functional and critically, allows the weight to be moved to a base station, as long as we accept the limitations of a base station with 25km range. The RAF’s Zephyr High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite (HAPS) has also been reported to include an option for a TETRA/TETRAPOL base station which would allow continuous coverage over a much greater area. Clearly, this would not be applicable to conventional operations against a well resourced and equipped enemy, but it should give food for thought as Project MORPHEUS progresses, trading off high bandwidth for simple secure voice and messaging and accepting limitations of a base station approach can yield significant weight savings for both the equipment and batteries used to power them.
A good example of simple innovation and well-executed design, rather than expensive development programmes, can yield significant weights savings is the XtractSR casualty evacuation system from TSG Associates. Another example is the collapsible tube technology from Rolatube.
Get Someone or Something Else to Carry Stuff
The British Army has a preponderance of light role infantry and there is certainly an argument for greater mechanisation but assuming light role infantry endures, using lightweight vehicles to carry collective and personnel stores is a tried and tested solution. One of the issues with using vehicles to carry light role infantry stores and equipment is they would absorb finite personnel and increase the support burden, thus reducing the very high ‘bayonet count’ in light role infantry battalions. They also have to get to the battlefield and be sustained themselves whilst there. Many terrains will be completely unsuited to a vehicle, even a quad, so the concept of providing vehicular assistance can be easily stretched to breaking. But if we accept these limitations, quad and ATV type infantry support vehicles would seem to offer a great solution that can be obtained quickly and cheaply. Quad bikes and trailers are therefore tried and tested, and there is still growth potential and additional capability, especially with trailers. These are detailed in a separate long read here. A more recent long read on Helicopter Portable Vehicles details the full range of ultra-lightweight crewed and uncrewed vehicles, all of which would provide support to dismounted infantry.
All of these would be excellent means of helping dismounted forces to carry less weight, approximately 750kg across a typical platoon.
Perhaps more esoteric systems like powered exoskeletons and delivery drones might be the answer but again, there are downsides to technology maturity and tactical applicability.
Drone deliveries might look great but a competent enemy would simply use them as a very handy means of determining the next mortar aiming point (something I think we forget in our rush for technology). There is still self-evidently a lot of potential with some interesting solutions in advanced testing. The most prominent in UK terms is the Malloy Aeronautics (makers of the Hoverbike) T-80 and T-150 which can lift 30kg and 68kg respectively. These are impressive machines with excellent performance, currently being tested by the Royal Navy and Royal Marines in various roles.
Resupply drones, surveillance drones, 2-man 6-wheel all-terrain vehicles, and comms and command kit has been tested extensively in #Cyprus as the Future Commando Force takes shape as part of the #LRGX deployment led by @hms_albion. #FCF https://t.co/HZEByKpbOQ pic.twitter.com/vz1IYjFrQo— Royal Marines (@RoyalMarines) November 5, 2020
And as we all know, muscles don’t have to be human.
The issue of overburdened infantry is as old as infantry, and there is the problem.
Whilst there is an ongoing debate about the validity of light role infantry in the contemporary operating environment, the fact remains that historical evidence and a reasonable look at the future informs a viewpoint that there is an enduring role for light infantry. We cannot assume support helicopter availability or that patrolling at short distances from operating bases will be the norm, and neither can we assume that vehicles will always be operable in the terrain where our enemy is. So if we are at all interested in winning the close battle we must take note of the issue of overburdened infantry soldiers because whatever the next conflict might be, there is a very real danger we will be punished badly for not addressing it. Against a well organised and well-equipped enemy, dismounted infantry may well be subject to significant amounts of observation and detection with a likelihood of accurate indirect fire soon after. As the BAR article described above noted, excess weight leading to decreased mobility is a tactical matter above all else.
But balancing protection and mobility is far easier said than done.
The amount of research that goes into protection is enormous, just as one example, this one looks at neck protection on Osprey and the requirements for Virtus, click here to read. The amount of protection has gone up and up and whilst some individual systems might be lighter than earlier generations, they still represent a significant percentage of the carried weight. There is continuous and ongoing work to reduce weight, some technologies may not mature for decades so the risk question has to be addressed.
But fundamentally, the key issue is not one of weight, it is the inability to take a risk-based decision without defaulting to turning infantry into tanks.
Arming unit commanders with an ability to make a risk-based decision is fundamental, especially if they evaluate that going ultralight will be essential to achieve objectives. Risk training and providing confidence that they will not be crucified by a lawyer after the battle will mitigate instances where risk aversion results in no risk-taking. Soldiers are professionals and it is about time we let them get on with their jobs, they understand the risks and the corporate culture of the MoD, no matter what the political cost, needs to reflect this. The reality is that in the majority of cases full protection would be the order of the day but commanders must have the flexibility to act as they see fit.
We also need to be wary of excessive technology; energy harvesting from smart fabrics and powered exoskeletons may well be part of a future answer but at what cost and when?
Chasing unicorns instead of getting on with taking practical steps now, no, let’s not do that, the issue is now and hoping for future technology to solve our leadership issues is foolish. It is probably the case that the infantry receives the least amount of investment per person than any other arm. This needs to stop, there are easy options for modest costs available now, much better in terms of return on investment than spending money on drone research for the last mile deliveries, however tempting that is. If some of the approaches of fight light are to work, those that supplement infantry with quads and ATV’s for example, there must be confidence in the logistics system that allows them to fight light but not freeze at night. This means, again, modest investments.
Our strategy should therefore be;
- Empower leaders to make informed risk-based decisions about protection levels
- Exploit immediate and incremental opportunities by purchasing reduced weight components that are readily available
- Continue with existing research programmes and systems architectures like GSA, keep a watching brief on systems like polymer cased ammunition for medium-term weight reductions
- Accept that until the higher technology systems mature, invest in carriage support for individual and platoon stores
None of this is easy, but as shown above, it is hardly a trivial matter either, the consequences are very serious. Ultimately, much of the problem is about organisational focus, discipline and leadership, something the British Army prides itself on.
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