Today’s soldiers in Afghanistan are the best equipped in the world — the best body armor, the best fire resistant uniform ensembles, the best weapons, night vision goggles, communications systems, mountain boots and helmets. What distinguishes the current wars from those for which the military had prepared is the dominance of dismounted maneuver in harsh and complex environments. This situation clearly placed a much greater emphasis on the individual equipment available to the individual soldiers and marines. Meeting the challenge of equipping soldiers and marines with better clothing and equipment has been a challenge for both the military and industry.
The U.S. military had to adapt its tactics, techniques and procedures to fight in an irregular war environment. Part of this process of adaptation was in response to the need to re-equip the force, armored vehicles and other major pieces of equipment. Less well publicized but perhaps more important in view of the need for soldiers to operate dismounted have been the efforts to improve the quality and functions of soldier clothing, personal gear and equipment. The need for rugged and reliable operational clothing, lighter and more effective body armor, deployable sensors and lights, night vision goggles, communications gear and lightweight power supplies became clear. The Army responded to the flood of urgent operational requirements for soldier equipment by creating the Rapid Equipping Force. Responding systematically and over a longer-period of time to emerging equipment requirements is the responsibility of the Rapid Fielding Initiative.
Equally energetic has been the response by the soldier clothing and equipment industrial base, much of which is commercial in character. Not only did this industrial base from the start of combat operations provide a wide array of items on an expedited basis, but it also engaged with the military in a concerted effort to improve its offerings to meet the demands coming from the field. Whether it was saddles for Special Operations Forces riding alongside the Mujahideen, improved body armor, tougher outer wear, helmets and boots, more comfortable uniforms, better packs or sensors and radios, the soldier clothing and equipment industrial base has met the requirements laid on it by the military.
From this experience emerges the clear challenge to the Department of Defense to never again permit U.S. forces to enter combat without the best individual equipment available, and then replacing it as technology and production provide even better items. This will entail, in turn, maintaining an active institutional capability to respond to urgent requirements as they arise. The Army has taken an important step in this direction by institutionalizing the Rapid Equipping Force and the Rapid Fielding Initiative. They have more than proven their worth and saved lives in the process.
Another step is to ensure that the critical industrial base that supports development and manufacture of soldier equipment remains healthy. As the nation looks increasingly for ways of reducing federal spending, cuts in the defense budget look increasingly likely. It is tempting to take such savings disproportionately from areas such as soldier clothing and individual equipment which is often characterized as a commodity-based industry that produces items that always can be purchased from commercial providers. This would threaten the ability of that industrial base not only to meet surge requirements in future conflicts but also its ability to innovate in response to changing requirements from the warfighters. The military needs to treat investments in soldier clothing and equipment as equal in importance to that devoted to major platforms and weapons systems. This means stable and predictable funding, high level support and a significant research and development effort.