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ARLINGTON, Va. — Every soldier in every infantry unit in the U.S. Army knows the legend of the “120-pound rucksack.” References to the “monster ruck” have become shorthand for today’s overburdened foot soldier, struggling to fight while hauling the equivalent of another soldier on his back.

The monster ruck is a myth, according to Lt. Col. Charles Dean, an infantry officer serving as the Army’s liaison to the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but that doesn’t mean soldiers aren’t carrying huge loads — up to 150 pounds.

The burden actually includes body armor, helmets, canteens, weapons and other gear that soldiers strap on or tote long before they pick up their rucksacks. All told, the average weight carried by a soldier on a dismounted operation is about 100 pounds, including a 30- to 40-pound rucksack, Dean said in a Thursday telephone interview.

To anyone who’s been deployed, it’s obvious that a soldier’s gear needs to be lightened up.

And the Army is working on just that: “Future Force Warrior” will spell out what a soldier will wear and use come 2012.

The program includes “some very stringent weight-reduction goals” — shaving a soldier’s burden by 50 percent, Dean said.

Advanced materials are a key to this effort, such as composites that could make weapons smaller and lighter, yet still more lethal. So are advances in electronics and other high-tech areas that will let engineers miniaturize equipment such as radios, and develop dual-use gear, like helmets with built-in night vision gear.

But the researchers had a problem: in the Army’s 228-year history, no one had ever gone into a combat zone to analyze just what soldiers were carrying, Dean said.

And without a baseline, trying to figure out how to lighten the load is going to be a wasted exercise, he said.

To get that baseline, Dean and seven Airborne Rangers spent May and June in Afghanistan with infantry soldiers, analyzing loads in real combat situations.

The purpose of the trip was twofold, Dean said: to collect information that will help the Army design the Future Warrior’s kit, and to provide data on problems with current gear that will help the Army provide soldiers with more efficient, capable gear right now, not in the future.

Dean and his Rangers selected “Task Force Devil,” the 82nd Airborne Division’s 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, as their test unit.

“It was a ‘skinny’ unit,” Dean said, “with soldiers who were in extremely fine shape and very disciplined with the loads they were carrying.”

The researchers picked a highly capable unit because they wanted a “best case” baseline for the study: experienced, physically fit soldiers carrying the least possible gear to get the job done, instead of a less experienced group that might have packed extra gear.

As a result, the combat load data Dean’s group would present in its report would represent “absolute reality,” instead of poundage that Army officials could argue included unnecessary add-ons, Dean said.

“The guys need that all that stuff, I’m convinced of that,” Dean said. “Now the question [for Future Warrior] is, how do you take some of [the weight] off their backs?”

The fact that even the most disciplined troops have to hump very heavy loads was a foregone conclusion — but the Army still needed precise data that spelled out those loads, Dean said.

“We didn’t go over there to re-split the atom,” Dean said. “We went there to catalog the realities … so we can help that reality change.”

The combat load report has struck a chord in the Army since Dean presented the group’s findings Nov. 20 at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass.

In the two weeks that the study has been posted on the Army’s “Army Knowledge Online” portal, 17,000 soldiers have “hit” the site, Dean said.

Moreover, the study’s goal of helping the Army to improve its gear today, not just 10 years down the road, has also borne fruit, in the form of modifications to the Army’s new “MOLLE” assault combat pack.

In Afghanistan, the troops had noted that the zippers on the packs were bursting open when the bags were stuffed full, Dean said. And the straps weren’t long enough to be easily adjusted over body armor.

So the bag was changed; it now has locking zippers and longer shoulder straps.

And the changes happened quickly. By the time Task Force Devil was sent back to Iraq in January, “one of the company officers e-mailed me and said ‘Hey, we got our new MOLLE packs,’” Dean said.

“The Army listened.”

The combat load study is available at the following site, which is open only to active-duty and Reserve component Army soldiers and Army civilians and requires registration and a password:

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