Marines are sprayed down after completing an endurance course at the Jungle Warfare Training Center on Camp Gonsalves in Okinawa. The Corps wants a quick-drying uniform for tropical environments. (Lance Cpl. Michael Iams / Marine Corps)
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The Marine Corps wants a next-generation uniform — a lightweight, quick-drying tropical ensemble that would include new cammies, socks and skivvies — for personnel deploying to the hot, humid climates they're likely to encounter in the Asia-Pacific region.
The Marine Corps Tropical Combat Uniform, as acquisition officials have titled the project, likely will feature the same Marine Pattern design as the Corps' utility uniform, but it will incorporate fabrics that dry in about 20 minutes. And while it may look similar to current uniforms, it could go a long way toward combating some of the greatest threats to any force operating in the tropics: fungus and fatigue.
"The fabrics used to construct the current Marine Corps Combat Utility Uniform and Flame Resistant Combat Ensemble do not dry out sufficiently in tropical environments," officials with Marine Corps Systems Command wrote in a request for information from the defense industry. It was published online in January.
Such a deficiency poses a problem for Marines seeing more deployments to countries like Japan, Australia, Guam and the Philippines. Being wet all day every day is a recipe for disaster, said retired Lt. Col. Robert Dalton, who served 30 years in the infantry — including combat tours in Vietnam, where the climate took its toll on U.S. forces. The most important thing in a tropical environment is to have a light uniform that breathes, he said.
"The lighter the clothing, the better in a jungle environment," Dalton said.
When he was a rifle company commander in Vietnam, moisture was a source of discomfort to his men and a threat to unit readiness.
"In the monsoon season, you are constantly wet. You are wet 24-hours a day. Then it gets cold at night in the jungle," something most people don't think about, he said. "So you are very cold. You freeze. You chill. Then the sun comes out, and you start to bake."
It's a vicious cycle, Dalton said.
Beyond personal discomfort, constant moisture becomes a threat to the unit by causing fungal infections, body sores and wounds that are difficult to heal without getting an infection. That takes Marines out of the field for treatment.
"Being constantly wet causes serious problems with feet and hands," he said. "We would go through the elephant grass and then, because the guys would roll up their sleeves, they would get cuts on their forearm. Then they would get infected very easily.
"The doc would tell you so-and-so is getting this infection. He isn't complaining, but you would have to send him out on a helicopter. He would come back maybe in four or five days."
The uniforms of the day were lightweight, but they didn't stay dry. Dalton hopes modern fabrics and scientific research can help make life easier for this generation of Marines. That said, the Corps doesn't need to reinvent the wheel, he said. Athletes, mountain climbers, even foreign militaries may have good solutions readily available.
Officials with MARCORSYSCOM were reluctant to provide much detail about the project pending the release of an official solicitation to the defense industry. However, it would appear the Corps is hoping to capitalize on commercially available technologies.
Marine officials held an industry day in January near Quantico, Va., to discuss the Corps' needs with various companies. And though initial plans call for developing the new uniform based on current utilities, the Corps is "willing to consider alternate designs which would better accommodate a tropical environment," according to a presentation officials made to industry representatives.
The ensemble would include new blouses, trousers, T-shirts, underwear and socks. But no new boots are in development as part of current efforts to field a tropical uniform, said Barb Hamby, a spokeswoman for MARCORSYSCOM. The Corps has developed hot-weather versions of its Rugged All Terrain boots. Marines have worn a temperate version of the RAT boot in Afghanistan.
In addition to a faster dry time, the new uniforms will be treated with permethrin to repel bugs, and they'll have anti-microbial properties to inhibit fungal growth — which doesn't only smell, it can lead to the sorts of infections that plagued Marines under Dalton's command in Vietnam.
As of yet, the Corps has set no precise timeline for fielding these uniforms. Officials anticipate releasing an official solicitation to the defense industry in early fiscal 2014. It will seek about 35,000 uniform sets.