Research and Development

Reading the introduction to the history of the Quartermaster Corps in World War II has highlighted for me on issue that consistently irked me in my mostly peacetime service- the improvement of the soldier’s personal equipment.

Hampered by extremely austere budgets, and with large surpluses of equipment from World War I, the Army was unable to devote significant resources to developing improved clothing, rations, personal equipment, tentage, or other equipment critical to the comfort and efficiency of the soldier, such as laundry and bath equipment or field laundries.  The soldier of 1940 was equipped, clothed and fed almost identically as his father 20 years before him, indeed, often from the very same stockpiles. It wasn’t that the Army was satisfied with the status quo. It just didn’t have money to replace anything. When the floodgates of spending opened at the beginning of World War II, the Quartermaster Corps had little time to develop and test replacement items. The pressure to field something, anything, for the massively increasing Army meant that less than fully tested equipment was ordered, and great pressure was exerted to procure it in quantity.  The problem was, it wasn’t until large numbers of troops started to serve overseas that the shortcomings in much of this equipment became known.  For instance, the basic Army field shoe, which had seemed suitable in early testing, proved incapable of withstanding more than a week or two in the field before it started to fall apart.  The field range for cooking seemed to work just fine. But the leaded gas it burned caused it to clog after just a handful of hours, and units often had no way of cooking meals.

In most cases, improvements were made, and orders placed for production of the improved items. But the press of mass production meant that it took time to switch to production of the improved models. Further, until stocks of the earlier versions were exhausted, the new iterations of equipment were stockpiled. As a result, many of the refined versions of uniforms, footwear, packs, tents and such never reached the troops in quantity before the end of the war.

With the end of the war, funding for continued research and development, let alone fielding, of many of these classes of items again fell by the wayside. What little money the Army had for procurement went to big ticket items, such as tanks.

Indeed, some items developed during World War II were still in widespread use over 40 years later when I joined the Army. The M1 steel helmet with liner was the most visible of these legacy items, but hardly the only one (not to mention the fact that the very barracks I took my training in had been built for World War II). Stoves and tentage, if not dating from wartime production, was of the same type. In some cases, that was because the items worked pretty well, and there was no sense reinventing the wheel. After all, a wood/coal burning stove for a tent is going to be pretty similar no matter how much design effort you put into it. But other items that were issued could easily and relatively cheaply been vastly improved. What possible excuse did the US Army of 1994 have for issuing shelter half tentage to infantry troops, a design in use with little improvement since 1912? At that time, there were literally hundreds of commercial off the shelf one-man tent designs that could have been adapted at low cost, providing much better comfort to the soldier in the field.

The same “boom or bust” routine played out during the Vietnam era. If I worked with a fair amount of World War II era equipment, virtually everything else I used when I first joined was of Vietnam vintage. The M16 rifle, the combat boot (and the excellent jungle boot), the night vision systems, the load bearing equipment and rucksacks. While some effort was made to replace elements of this equipment, it wasn’t until after the Army began operations in Afghanistan and Iraq that widescale replacement of that era’s equipment began. Today, there’s almost no piece of personal equipment in use that I have first hand experience with.

Is there any doubt that with the budget cuts soon to come, the Army will again put the development and procurement of soldier equipment at the bottom of the “to-do” list?

9 thoughts on “Research and Development”

  1. We used to go to Fort Campbell once a month after my father retired from the USAF. In the early 70s they were still running BCT there, and better than half the buildings on post were of WW2 vintage. Supposedly “temporary” buildings. Nothing is more permanent than a temporary fixture in the Army. By comparison, less than 10% of the buildings on Lackland AFB were of the old WW2 temp construction. Not as true on Kelly AFB, just over the line from Lackland, but probably close to 40% in the main part of the base. In fairness, the AF wasn’t sure what to do with Kelly and didn’t want to put a bunch of money into the base, but the more important buildings, like the chow hall were new (the indoor range I shot at on the AYA rifle team was the old chow hall and we used the Reefer as our ammo vault).

    Things like rifles, and big ticket items will be replaced slowly. Nothing for it. The consumables, like boots and uniforms, are a much different thing entirely. I note they are cycling through stuff like that much faster.

    I didn’t like Jungle Boots in an Ohio winter, however. And I rather like my Herman Survivors that I’m wearing right now during the cold weather here in the WNC mountains. I’m sure it wouldn’t be so bad where you are, however.

    personally, I’d like to see a rifle dispensing more power than the 5.56 too. Something in the 6.5mm class would be far better. It’s not like it can’t be done. The AR-15 action could stand to go as well. I love the ROK K-2 (I have a civvie version of it) and it is as reliable as the SKS/AK systems are. Has the AR-15 lock up, but the AK gas system operates with authority and it has an adjustable gas port as the FN-FAL does. I could live with the G-3, however. There is too much of an emotional investment in the AR-15/M-16 system, however. The troops have paid a high price for it as well.

  2. I have no expectation that they will change anything any time soon, other than whatever color they pick to work with the next camouflage pattern. But, on the other hand, they don’t need to. Most of it is pretty darn good, now, though I still have a couple small complaints such as the lack of a radio pocket in the rucksack. But overall the TA50 is decent. But on the other hand, I would have no problem switching back to my old LBE in a heartbeat. There is a reason that stuff lasted from M1956-M1967-ALICE with relatively little change, while LBV was despised.

    1. I still use M1956 LBE web gear when I go to the file Surveying. Just added the GI Machete and a civvie carpenter’s pouch for field book, plumb bob and nails. I’ve had the stuff for 20 years now and would go without it. I had some give me ALICE suspenders, and they didn’t work as well. The rear hooks a re bit too close for my taste, but it would have been OK if I hadn’t come across the ’56 stuff in Friedman’s Surplus in Nashville back in the 80s.

  3. I agree with Esli, there’s not much to improve at this point with the TA50. LBV be gone! A lot would boil down to personal preference. Beyond that are the little things that sorta fall outside the bounds of TA50 but are every bit needed. Now days eye protection is mandatory (funny how during the Cold War the infantry didn’t need that stuff). PEO Soldier has worked brokering off the shelf “good stuff” through the military system. The down side to OTS is the product was not subjected to the full range of tests. On the other hand, for a commercial product to make money it has to work. Score one for the free market, and a shout out to Cabelas I guess.

    1. As for eye protection, back in ’87, my battalion was the field test for an early iteration of “eye armor” in which we were issued and encouraged to wear off the shelf Gargoyle glasses, one bronze, one clear. I thought they were pretty damn good.

      About 6 years later, the “product improved” version showed up. Heavier, more fragile, and with an expensive and awkward green laser filter. No one wore them. They locked ’em up until it was time to turn them in at PCS.

    2. Ahh, yes, the BLPS or Ballistic/Laser Protective Spectacles that went on every commander’s property book, only to sit in the supply room and be counted twice a year. Give me my Oakleys any day. I did buy a pair of Gargoyles back in 94 and one NTC rotation finished ’em off. Abrasive sand and lenses don’t mix well, I guess.

    1. “Tentage” is exactly the word used multiple times in the official history, so I used it.

      Further, as Merriam-Webster seems OK with it, I’ll leave it in:

      http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tentage

      ”””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””’

      ^^ a bunch of apostrophes just to drive Viki mad.

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