Marines with 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 3, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade prepare to board CH-53D Sea Stallion and CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters at Forward Operating Base Dwyer, Afghanistan on July 2. (CWO 3 Philippe E. Chasse / Marine Corps)
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It's not just the body armor.
Over and over again, that's what Marine officials say when questioned about the heavy load grunts are carrying in Iraq and Afghanistan. Marines' combat loads typically include no more than 35 pounds of armor. But weapons, communications gear, water, batteries, ammunition and other essential fighting gear make up most of the load.
"People say, ‘lighten the load, lighten the load,' " Lt. Col. A.J. Pasagian, head of the Corps' infantry combat equipment program, told the Corps' gunner community during an Aug. 5 conference. "If we're going to lighten the load on the body armor components, who's lightening the load on batteries? Who's … lightening the load of water? We need to be looking at those things, too, and we are."
With the Corps now preparing for a long stay in Afghanistan, Marine officials are pushing forward with plans to cut weight from the 65-plus pounds other than armor, researching lighter ammunition, a better pack and next-generation optics and gear that could improve agility and combat readiness.
"As an expeditionary force, we say that we are fast, austere and lethal," Commandant Gen. James Conway said Aug. 13 at the 2009 Marine Corps Energy Summit. "In order to be fast, you need to be light."
The plans reflect new needs for Marines, who have performed patrols primarily in vehicles during the last few years in Iraq. It's another story in Afghanistan: Last year, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, of Twentynine Palms, Calif., conducted about 70 percent of its patrols on foot, and suffered more than twice the joint, back and chest pain than did members of 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, who deployed around the same time to Iraq from Camp Lejeune, N.C.
In 2/7, about 27 percent of the 786 Marines who completed post-deployment health forms reported experiencing back pain, with 23 percent reporting joint pain and 4 percent acknowledging chest pain, said Mark Richter, head of the Marine Expeditionary Rifle Squad program that oversees efforts to engineer existing gear to best suit Marines. By comparison, 13 percent of 1/9 Marines reported back pain, with 9 percent experiencing joint pain and 2 percent acknowledging chest pain.
A MERS study showed that while the average load Corps-wide may be about 100 pounds, many Marines with 2/7 carried more. The average combat load for the unit was 112 pounds, Richter said, with weights ranging from 83 pounds for a squad leader to 144 pounds for a mortarman carrying 60mm rounds.
To help counteract that burden, MERS will launch a comprehensive "Design Light Initiative" this fall, looking for ways to cut weight on everything from flashlights to communications gear. Richter declined to speculate on the number of pounds the program would look to cut, but said engineers also will assess how weight can best be distributed on a Marine's body.
"We're going to look at every single item you could possibly have in a squad," Richter said. "Each of those little items, [their weights] add up."
New pack considered
That's just one effort to make Marines lighter, however. Eyeing new plastics, electronics and other technology, individual programs across the Corps also are looking for ways to reduce weight or make carrying gear easier.
In one example, Marine Corps Combat Development Command at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., is researching a new pack.
Lt. Col. Chris Woodburn, a requirements officer at MCCDC, said Marines have complained the pack doesn't fit well on top of modern armor plates. The current pack system was approved in 2004, before the proliferation of improvised explosive devices prompted development of beefy protective inserts.
"It worked well with the [old body armor] because there was no plate," Woodburn said of the pack. "Now that there's a plate, the integration of the pack with body armor appears to be an issue."
Developing a new pack and introducing improvements to the existing system are both options, and the Corps is interviewing grunts for ideas.
Optic combo packages
The Corps also is looking at ways to cut weight on optics.
Prototypes are available that combine the capabilities of thermal optics with those of night vision goggles such as the PVS-14, Marine officials said. However, most of the devices come in a size "like if you duct-taped the two of them together," said Maj. Jason Arthaud, head of the optics program at Quantico-based Marine Corps Systems Command.
"It has to go through a miniaturization process," he said of industry. "They'll get it."
In the meantime, Marines continue to carry both pieces of gear, as well as the Rifle Combat Optic. Each weighs less than a pound, but if they could be combined, they represent prime opportunities to consolidate and save weight.
Woodburn said the "Holy Grail" of optics combines the abilities of the RCO, the night sight and the thermal site while also incorporating a range finder and an infrared laser pointer. But nothing offering all those capabilities is likely to be available anytime soon, Marine officials said.
Meanwhile, a lighter aluminum mount for optics tested now would double as an iron sight if optics break and eliminate the "luggage handle" on the top of a rifle, Arthaud said. Known as the Eye Relief Extension Kit, it offers about a 10-ounce weight savings.
Lighter small-arms ammunition could replace brass casings with polymer, providing an estimated 25 percent weight reduction. The effort, now in development, is focused initially on reducing the weight of .50-caliber ammo, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Kurt Garrett, an ammunitions officer with SysCom, said.
"They've had some successful tests with it, and it's looking good."
If the .50-cal rounds work out, the Corps will look to field polymer casings on other rounds, including 5.56mm and 7.62mm ammunition, Garrett said.
Currently, a 30-round rifle magazine weighs about a pound, while the 200-round drum carried on the 5.56mm M249 Squad Automatic Weapon weighs about 7 pounds.
"Every pound counts," Garrett said. "We could see some real savings there."
Other efforts underway
Batteries present another opportunity. The average Marine carries about 9 pounds of batteries. Battery chargers — including some that are solar-powered — reduce the number of batteries needed downrange but are yet another item a Marine must carry.
The Corps is researching a system that would inductively electrify a rifle's rails. Rather than having individual commercial batteries powering each optic, an optic would come to life once it's snapped on, with a single, more powerful battery placed toward the back of the weapon and powering all electronic equipment used.
"That's significant," Richter said. "The whole center mass of the weapon would change, too, making it easier for Marines to engage their targets."