In the war in Afghanistan it is the little things that count. Things like armored underwear. According to a recent article in USA Today, the Pentagon is providing troops on the ground with a variety of personal clothing and gear intended to provide greater protection against improvised explosive devices (IEDs). These include titanium athletic cups, Kevlar bicycle shorts, silk underwear and heavyweight leg guards or chaps. In addition, U.S. forces are now being sent hand-held ground penetrating radar that can be used to detect IEDs even if they contain virtually no metal. Having spent tens of billions of dollars for MRAPs, M-ATVs and double hulled Strykers and on vehicle mounted bomb detectors and jammers, the military has now turned its attention to the vulnerability of dismounted troops to IEDs.
The organization responsible for providing the troops with this additional protection is PEO Soldier. Since the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan began, PEO Soldier has worked to respond to a tsunami of urgent operational needs — requests from the field for clothing and equipment that the troops absolutely must have right away. These have included everything from warm weather clothing, improved night vision goggles, manportable robots and special escalation of force kits to assist soldiers in undertaking what were traditionally police duties such as traffic management or crowd control. Because soldiers standing up through the roofs of vehicles were subjected to sniper attacks, PEO Soldier developed and deployed 18,000 Common Remotely Operated Weapons Stations (CROWS). The CROWS allow soldiers to operate a variety of weapons, sensors and laser target designators from the safety of the vehicle’s interior. PEO Soldier also “invented” a new type of night vision goggle that combined imaging infrared with light intensification which allows soldiers to operate in and out of darkened buildings at night.
It may be surprising to some that we are still rushing new clothing and equipment to our troops some nine years after the conflict in Afghanistan began. One reason for this is that soldier clothing and equipment has rarely gotten the attention it required from the military in comparison to large, expensive weapons platforms. Another reason is that a different piece of clothing or equipment has been handled as a separate procurement item. Many are treated as commodities rather than as parts of a weapons system — the soldier himself. Only recently has PEO Soldier initiated a program to treat the soldier as a system in which planning for all the clothing and equipment is cared for in a systematic fashion, at least in theory. A third reason is the lack of a line item in the base defense budget to support both R&D and procurement of soldier clothing and equipment.
DoD has at long last taken a step to correct this last problem. The Pentagon has requested that Congress agree to a line item in the base defense budget to cover meeting urgent operational needs coming out of theaters of combat. More needs to be done. The military needs to consolidate its acquisition of soldier clothing and individual equipment rather than maintaining dozens and dozens of separate procurements. The number of requirements needs to be reduced, as well. Finally, clothing and equipment needs to get the same level of attention and dare I say respect that is afforded to major weapons systems.
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