I spent a goodly portion of my time as an infantryman in mechanized units. As such the load we carried was, while burdensome, not of any especially great importance. But I also spent a fair amount of time in a light infantry unit. If our unit took anything to the field, we took it on our backs.
Even light units in Iraq, while they spent a great deal of time on foot, were mounted on or supported by Humvees or MRAPs. And the terrain was generally level. That’s not the case in Afghanistan. The terrain is an awesome challenge, and that very terrain precludes support and resupply of small infantry units by road. Consequently, infantry troops there are finding themselves with almost unbelievable loads every time they go on patrol.
This isn’t exactly a new problem for US forces. Every professional journal about the army periodically has an article bemoaning the crushing loads we burden our troops with, and suggesting ways to ease the load. Typically, technology is lauded as a way of lessening the load in the near future. The problem is, technology is the single biggest factor in increasing the load.
One of the paradoxes of the profusion of technology in the last decade has been that while individual pieces of electronic equipment have become lighter, there has been an explosion in the number of such devices. Back in my day, an infantry platoon would have 2 radios, and maybe 6 night vision devices. Now, virtually every soldier has a set of night vision goggles, and damn near every soldier has a radio. Sure, they’re lighter, but for the most part, it has been an addition to each soldier’s load. And as this article notes, it’s one thing to carry the device, it’s another thing to also lug around the batteries for all this stuff.
Then there’s body armor. In my lightfighter days, we just didn’t bother with it. Armor was so heavy that the loss of mobility, and increased incident of heat exhaustion outweighed the questionable benefits of wearing it. But today’s armor actually weighs more. It’s just that it is so much more effective at protecting troops (and preventable injuries are so politically sensitive in today’s culture) that troops wear armor every time they leave the wire.
The failure of the M16 to serve as a sustained automatic fire weapon also led to the introduction of the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon. While the SAW is lighter than most machine guns, it weighs roughly twice what an M16 weighs. So that’s a load increased on two troops in each squad. Also, the minimum of 600 rounds each SAW gunner carries is quite a load.
The M4 carbine most troops carries weighs less than an M16. Until you realize that almost every M4 also has combat optics and a laser pointer bolted to it. In fact, an accessorized M4 weighs more than a vanilla M16.
As the linked article notes, mortarmen and medics are carrying loads of up to 133 pounds for just a 3 day mission. The rule of thumb is that a soldier’s load should not total more than 1/3 his naked body weight. That’s a load of about 50-70 pounds. And that load includes uniform, boots, everything. Your basic grunt has exceeded that with just an M240 and his body armor. That’s before he loads a single round, much less puts on his underwear.
In my day, the basic ammo load for a rifleman was 210 rounds, that is, 6 30-round magazines in the pouches, and one in the weapon. Today, it’s a rare trooper that doesn’t carry at least a dozen. A loaded 30 round magazine weighs about 2 pounds. It adds up quick. Then there’s the grenades, extra ammo for the machine gunners, pyrotechnics, and all the other ammo. Also, most troops these days carry their own IV kit, in case they become a casualty.
I’m not kidding when I say I’m in awe of the way today’s young troops are hauling these incredible loads across some of the most Godforsaken hills in the world. I was in fantastic condition when I was in Hawaii, and I’m not at all sure I’d have been up for the challenge these guys face.