September 30, 2018

The US Military Must Lighten Warfighters’ Loads

By Paul Scharre

In World War II, being an infantryman was the third-deadliest job in the American military, behind bombardiers and submariners. In the years since, technology has woven a cloak of stealthiness around bombers and submarines, yet the infantry remains a deadly profession. Over 80 percent of U.S. combat deaths since World War II have been in the infantry, a community that makes up just 4 percent of the force. Survivability in combat has improved dramatically in recent wars because of advances in body armor and combat medicine, but more could be done. The thousands of servicemembers killed, tens of thousands evacuated from theater, and hundreds of thousands suffering from traumatic brain injury point to the dire need to increase the survivability of dismounted ground troops. To address this problem, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has created a Close Combat Lethality Task Force to strengthen the “lethality, survivability, resiliency, and readiness of infantry squads.”

One factor that has slowed improvements in infantry survivability is the fundamental weight-carrying capacity of a human. Modern technology can improve survivability in aircraft and submarines because the platforms themselves can be redesigned to accommodate better defenses. Bombers and submarines have grown in size without sacrificing mobility. The B-2 bomber, for example, is more than twice as heavy as the World War II-era B-29 Superfortress, and cruises more than 2.5 times as fast. For people, however, the load-carrying capacity is fixed. More weight impedes mobility.

Today’s grunts carry anywhere from 90 to 140 pounds in combat. This heavy burden hampers mobility, increases fatigue, and reduces performance. Grunts who carry these loads understand this all too well; quantitative studies support their perception. Studies have shown that heavier loads reduce situational awareness, slow reaction times, and make warfighters more susceptible to enemy fire. Heavier weight also increases injuries. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of soldiers retiring with musculoskeletal injuries increased tenfold, a drain on the long-term health of the force.

Read the full article in Defense One.

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