As counter-intuitive as it sounds, the Pashtun tribal code in Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan is inhospitable to outsiders to the point of hostility. The history of the valley is marked with violent encounters and campaigns where these isolated tribes defeated their unprepared foes time and time again. In fact, US forces recently ceded ground and treasure by abandoning the valley after five years of futile fighting where they learned the painful lessons of the limits of power and lack of resources. The terrain is unforgiving – it’s elevation lines on a map stand out to even a casual observer – requiring prudent commanders to begin tailoring a soldier’s combat load immediately before any operation can commence while balancing force protection and the inherit risks of reducing the combat load.
From 2005 until this past spring US forces have had a short stock of gear that could be tailored to reduce the load because of the then current design never matched mission requirements. There was never a concerted effort by either leadership or by extension the defense industry to produce and outfit troops with the lighter, better equipment necessary for extreme conditions found in this little valley of death. If anything the Army and Marines only added more weight to the grunt’s kit. In other words: “more protection is better,” “we must protect the deltoids,” “we can’t resupply you as often because are helicopter resupply is limited, so you have to carry more,” “Hey, hand these items out to the locals and win their hearts and minds…yeah we know the items are heavy, but figure it out.” The on-the-ground commanders made the best of a grim situation and soldiered on, taking unnecessary casualties along the way.
Yet the Korengal Valley is not an isolated example that required specialized gear – just ask the troops at Lwara or Shkin or the Shah-i-kot Valley further south in P2K. Or ask a Marine humping his gear on the Helmand plains even further south. And you can’t tell me that troops in the Horn of Africa rotating through Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, Africa couldn’t use some lighter gear as they conduct and support counter-terrorism missions in the heat and desert. Or that troops assigned to the DMZ or in the new safe-harbor base assignments in South Korea or the 50,000 troops way-stationed now in Iraq, who partner outside the wire with Iraqi security forces, aren’t asking for lighter gear.
I wasn’t exactly surprised when I ran into a dear friend recently who’d just spent some time arm-wrestling the bureaucracy in theater trying to get some new kit for his boys – an unsuccessful exercise for his unit that caused preventable casualties. And that’s the point, right? Save a troop today so he can kill tomorrow? I mean do the math? The enemy strength grows exponentially, while ours is being whittled away.
So I figured that by now there had to be some solution in the pipeline, some improvement being made and I put out the word to check the “kit” status while vetting open source reporting on this issue. Units seem to be applying self-remedy to this issue. In one published example, senior brigade NCO leadership queried troops and leaders on what gear they’d want if they were “King for a Day, kit wise.” Once the list was approved the unit began to stock up on these items – mittens, combat boots, stoves, and headlamps – practical and necessary items for extreme conditions purchased with unit discretionary funds. The same unit then later tested and fielded new light wear gear to positive effect.
It appears that the Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group has a niche mission after successfully convincing Army leadership to develop, test and field much lighter and thus faster gear. Items recently tested and fielded include: Eagle MBAV-A plate carriers, Arc’terx Knee Caps, MK48 Machine guns, wrist-top Suunto GPS units, new boots and better socks. The net result during their most recent testing and fielding to units assigned to the Korengal reduced the combat load by 14 pounds. Finally a step in the right direction.
The Army is reporting plans to field new Multi-cam Uniforms that are lighter but more durable as well as new plate carriers by this fall to thousands of deployed troops in Afghanistan. For the novice, issuing new uniforms is a daunting task because of the requirement to change camo pattern for all associated field gear so as to blend in. It’s a colossal pain in the ass but well worth it for the troops if done for the right purposes – improved durability and force protection.
Forward deployed units still retain the option to submit Operational Needs Statements (ONS) specifically requesting specialized and/or necessary gear – however, this process isn’t very timely, cuts across numerous command relationships and hasn’t been the answer to a unit’s immediate needs, which was one of my mentor’s chief complaints when he came up on the net to eke out a response to me. His take is that ONS’s become legacy documents left forever in the pipeline to provide some gear in due course, but may not necessarily address reducing the Soldiers load. He’s absolutely right – the ONS system worked initially but now is overburdened, inefficient and untimely.
The Rapid Equipping Force (REF), a military organization which is operated largely by civilians, works with overseas and deployed commanders to provide them equipment items not found in the military supply system – in a pinch REF brings initial combat gear and provides some over-the-horizon capability to deploying units. In fact, Bagram Air Base houses an REF facility for these purposes, although I have yet to confirm how accessible and responsive that REF unit is. Or even, where it is.
The contractor base is alive and well and remains very profitable. All reports I’ve received indicate they’ve become a maintenance distraction for specialized gear purchased and fielded over the years, since contractors are normally restricted—because of liability—from regular travel to the more than 400 FOB’s or outposts in Afghanistan. This requires units to backhaul equipment to secure contractor locations for refit and repair, a backup system usually not available during the maintenance period so the unit simply does without.
But while self-help unit remedies with discretionary funds and a limited AWG fielding of lighter gear are steps in the right direction, antiquated and unresponsive ONS request and procurement systems, single source REF facilities not properly networked into the battle space and relying on long-haul DHL transportation to ship and receive goods, and the constantly expanding umbilical cord of contractors necessity to maintain increasingly complex equipment all still negatively affect the crushing combat load our Soldiers and Marines carry on the battlefield.
It would probably best serve everyone’s interest to pose the relevant question, “If you could be King for a Day, kit-wise” to every formation of troops serving today and act on those results. Not only would we be turning in legacy gear that’s “caused unnecessary injuries and fatalities” but also finally, for a change, really be taking care of our troops in harm’s way. To do anything less amounts to leadership negligence.