“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of it to anyone else.”
~ Charles Dickens
I talked last week about the preposterous loads we put on our footsoldiers’ backs in Afghanistan, and how that’s gone a long way toward losing us the war. This week I want to break it down a little, with as recent figures as I’ve been able to find. Note, once again, that the weight has gone up since the 2003 study I mentioned last week.
Here’s what the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence1 listed, for a rifle platoon leader, a bit over a year ago. Note, here, that this isn’t counting the soldier’s worn uniform, nor his worn boots, underwear, belt, and socks, nor his individual load carrying equipment, the vest that took over from the old harness system. I could quibble, I suppose, over whether the water and food belongs under survivability or under sustainment. I can see reasons for either. Similarly, I’m not sure I agree that the night vision goggles belong under lethality when they’re more about command and control. That said, in conjunction with the laser, they can be used lethally.
Total weight: 124.05 pounds7, to which I will very arbitrarily add enough for his load bearing vest, uniform, underwear, belt, wallet, dog tags, sunglasses, boots, etc. to bring it up to a round 130 pounds.
You don’t really have to be an expert to see the problem. Three things should still jump out at you or, at least, should be revealed by a little thought: 1) it’s just too much damned weight, 2) there is unnecessary – maybe nice to have, but unnecessary – redundancy in there, 3) this is a summer load; how much worse will it get in winter? Or in the mountains?
So how do we end up doing this to our troops? There are a few reasons, some of which I’ll explore in more depth in future columns. Some of those reasons are defensible – I won’t admit they’re necessarily right, but they’re defensible. Some are the result of logistic pusillanimity (that means supply cowardice). Some are the result of stupid decisions by higher leadership. Some the result of indiscipline on the part of the lower level leadership and the rank and file. Maybe some is because they’ve gotten a bit spoiled. Some are the result of an ignorant press – but I repeat myself – acting to sway a population with unrealistic expectations, which populace sways politicians, which causes politicians to, in turn, make absurd demands of higher level military leadership. Some is the result of the same mind-bogglingly idiotic, general officer-driven silliness that had special forces troops shaving every day, back in the early days. That’s right; a special forces flag officer demanded that the SF troops in Afghanistan shave, even though they were advising Afghans, and should have been trying to blend in while earning the respect of the people they were advising. Men without beards do not earn a lot of respect in that part of the world.8 One would expect a special forces officer to know that, but nooooo….
When I say supply cowardice, think back to the old saw, “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost…” all the way to, “the kingdom was lost.” Never happened. “What, never? No, never!” It’s just a silly piece of doggerel, either devoid of value or, because it gives a false idea of the usefulness of “zero defects,” of negative value. It’s a bit like, “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” generally attributed to Wellington, the victor at Waterloo. The problem is that Wellington never said it and, indeed, could not have said it; Eton didn’t have playing fields until years, more than a decade, after the battle. And yet it’s been used for over a century to justify an overemphasis on competitive sports.
It’s amazing how often stupid notions coined by amateurs can have so much influence, no?
Logistic pusillanimity, or supply cowardice, means demanding things be carried that cannot be justified by the risk in not having them to hand or the gain in having them. For example, look at those six MRE meals and the 10 pounds they weigh. That’s food enough for two days, or three if we’re willing to let the troop live off his fat for 24 hours. Has it ever happened in Afghanistan that we had somebody so cut off that they actually couldn’t be resupplied before eating their fourth meal? Unavoidably? I doubt it. Chop the meals in half; save five pounds. Or recognize that the soldier can eat after the nightly resupply, which would allow providing that meal then, and cut his load to two MREs. Save six and two-thirds pounds.
Spoiled or undisciplined? I don’t lay the charge lightly. Look at three items: the wet weather gear, the sleep system and the poncho with liner. That’s 11 pounds of “nice to have” that’s probably not necessary. I could be convinced otherwise, but it will be a hard sell. This is a summer load, for God’s sake; dump everything but the poncho with liner and add in a light sweater to sleep in if it turns chilly. That should save about eight pounds.
Then there’s the unnecessary redundancy. Look at that mix of STANO gear (Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Night Observation), at 8.26 pounds. The binos and the rest serve different purposes. The ACOG serves a different purpose from the binoculars. But between the laser PEQ, the night vision goggles and the thermal sight, either the PEQ and NVGs or the thermal can go. Yes, it would be nice if the platoon leader had all that, and a traveling roadshow to entertain the troops, too. But it isn’t generally necessary; it is only nice to have. And it’s a lot less nice when it’s on the boy’s back, weighing him down. I’d say dump the thermal; keep the laser and goggles as they’re more in keeping with his job, which is not direct engagement of targets but leadership and command and control. Save five pounds.
More redundancy: the IFAK, the first aid kit, doesn’t need to be carried by every man. The combat is just not intense enough for that. One for every third man, and spread out other things to balance it all. Save maybe two-thirds of a pound.
Toilet kit… two and a half pounds. Dump everything but a bar of soap, a towel and insect repellent (which is probably hiding out there). Save two pounds. “Oh, but what will the men shave with?” “They won’t shave, you idiot. There’s no reason for them to. They can shave when they return from patrol.”
Maybe we’ve knocked enough weight off to also knock off a liter of water, especially since we’ve gotten rid of the shaving requirement.
So we’ve cut a grand total of just about 25 pounds. He’s still lugging 105. He’s still going to be outrun by a tuberculoid Pashtun in flip flops with an AK, a water bottle and a bag of almonds.
It’s still too much. Go on back now and see what has to go if the soldier’s load is to be reduced enough to allow him to find, fix, fight and finish his enemy. Yeah, that, that 31.87-pound mother of a body armor vest. It can’t be supported. The body armor and winning the war are mutually incompatible. If we can’t contemplate giving that up, at least as a day in, day out piece of equipment, then we need to contemplate simply giving up on fighting wars. Of course, ultimately that means our national extinction.
1 Fort Benning, GA. I’m not entirely sure why, but every time the Army inserts the phrase, “of excellence,” into something, I can’t help but think of the “Homer Simpson Award for Excellence.” Perhaps I am a cynic. Or perhaps someone with too much rank and too little brains has faith in the magic of words and presumes that the phrase will, or even must, become reality. Or, more probably, both.
2 Among other things, the VS-17 panel, a bright, foldable plastic sheet, is used to mark landing zones for helicopters or for aerial resupply drops or to keep friendly air from bombing the crap out of you.
3 The AN/PAS-13 is a thermal imaging weapons sight. It can see not only in the night, but also through smoke, fog, rain, and snow – even dust – with some degradation. There’s a newer version, also lighter, but the manufacturer’s website doesn’t give weight. It might cut 2-3 pounds from the total load. Note, here, that it is possible, at least, that the thermal represents a portion of the lieutenant’s chunk of the platoon’s gear, that it is rotated around among whoever happens to be on watch at night. I don’t think that’s the case, and I’m going with what I think but I could be wrong.
4 I’m not sure why a platoon leader is carrying a PVS-7, since the PVS-14, a helmet-mounted or hand-held monocular, has become fairly widely available.
5 This is a laser emitter that attaches to the weapon, useful for either illumination purposes or to aim. It can be seen in the PVS-7 goggles, or the PVS-14 monocular.
6 Improved Outer Tactical Vest. Body armor, in this case with inserts to defeat bullets, and sundry snap-ons for the groin and neck… It keeps getting heavier.
7 If you tally up all the weights, there’s a tiny discrepancy in there. It’s probably due to rounding.
8 I knew the general officer concerned when he was a captain. He was even then very much the anal retentive, salute in the field type. “Sniper check, sir.” He never impressed me at all.
Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.