The Soldier's Load

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.

And, no, I don’t think HULC will be the answer any time soon.


14 thoughts on “The Soldier's Load”

  1. FYI, during my surge rotation (2007-8), my body armor (OTV), helmet (ACH), M4 (210 rds) and M9 pistol (45 rds) weighed in at 71 lbs. That’s before I added so much as a notebook. Lucky I was not required to carry any particular additional equipment. This was enough for my old butt. Glad I’m a tanker….

  2. I still go back to SLAM’s point. There is a set limit to the weight you can reasonably ask a person to carry into combat. In the old days the biggest concerns were ammo and food. I recall issues of 200 plus rounds per rifleman and half a dozen MREs for an overnight patrol. All under the “no more lost battalions” syndrome. Planners felt this would give the men confidence, that they would have plenty of supplies. Reality is about half way through the patrol, fatigue brought down effectiveness.

    Batteries. Now that is a sore point for me as an old Sigo. How many “custom” battery sizes does the Army have? I lost count at three dozen NSNs. Often a “standard” battery could probably suffice. Yet the system was designed around a proprietary electrical supply source. BA-5590 is a good example. Most systems using that battery could have been designed around a power system comparable with off the shelf options. Instead the dismounts must lug four of those (all too often short living) batteries to handle a 24 hour mission. The guy who designed the system probably never had to walk further than his reserved parking spot in front of the lab.

    1. Dude, I remember when they shifted from the old magnesium batteries for PRC-77s to Li batteries. I was so happy. They cut my battery load in half.

  3. From a logistics standpoint alone, the military needs to requires the use of standard batteries with no adaptors of any sort allowed.

    I hated the issue batteries when I was in back in the early 70s. We’d get about 2 nights of normal watch standing on the ship with a normal pair od “D” cells. I’m sure alkalines are available now, but I wonder about the quality. By comparison, I bought a pair of Ray-O-Vac “D” cells aboard and they lasted two weeks.

    1. You are right, the OD green alkaline batteries failed in all regards. And invariably, the communications gear required a case of the darned things to simply power up. The old AN/GRA-39 remote unit needed a dozen. And about twice a day you had to replace the set. That’s why most CPs kept the radio sets local, risking the threat from enemy RDF efforts. Often we’d solder a standard 9 volt battery lead into GRA-39s. Those would last about six hours. But I could lug around a box of 25 of the 9 volts in place of a dozen D Cells.

  4. Craig, when I was in you couldn’t even get Alkaline batteries on the civvie market (1972-’74), and when you could in about 2-3 years, they cost about 5 times what a regular the standard carbon-zinc cells cost. They would last about 5 times longer though.

    The biggest thing that mitigates against battery life is radio transmission. It takes a lot of current. Since battery life is rated in terms of Amp-Hours, it’s easy to see why they won’t last long. When I was County Engineer in Ohio we had several hand held radios that could reach any where in the county, and the batteries (Nicads) would last all day for crew comms. The difference, however, is we had a repeater on one of the highest hills in the county. An aerostat used for the same purpose would be a very good thing. Then, using standard alkalines, you could carry compact comms for several days. For the cost of about 20 repeater stations, you could cover most of the country (that might be an under-estimation, but I’m a Civil, not a Radio Engineer.

    My suggested solution may not be the best in the world, but something is going to have to be done to solve the problem. As the troop’s loads get larger, there’s going to be a breaking point. A radio for each trooper is, I think, a need, not a luxury. And the ability to communicate locally, as well as through a regional push is just as badly needed. The current battery situation is not workable in the long run, simply for logistical reasons.

  5. Well during my rotation in Afghanistan I carried more than the average 11B for ammo. I personally bought several mag carriers from Blackhawk and when I was told we had some loose ammo available if we wanted it I snagged enough to round out something like 16 30 round mags plus 1 in the weapon. Best creation invented during my military career has been MOLLE. Makes it easier to adjust the load.

  6. The biggest waste of space, in my opinion, was the M47 Dragon, on my 113’s in the FRG in mid-80’s. Training for them was pathetic. Almost nobody knew how to accurately use them. The designated Dragon gunner per squad, had to carry the ridiculously heavy sight, in a huge pouch. Then the 1 use only round, which was like a 30 some pound ‘Super Law”. Then, there were these Thermal Imagery sights mounted in the 113’s for use by the TC, on the turret. The Dragon round could be mounted on a special mount, on the TC’s turret, alongside Ma-Deuce. Never used, period. Not even training. I never saw anyone hit anything with a live Dragon “training test” round, even under 600 meters. The TOW’s, ITV’s had that job covered. They should have just gave all the Rifle squads a small S***Load of M-72A2’s, for close in AT handywork.

    1. I was actually a very good Dragon gunner. But it was a very training intensive weapon. And I doubt I would have been very accurate if someone were shooting at me.

      But you’re right that no one ever mounted the Dragon on the TC hatch. We had the mount, but I never once saw it used. I don’t think I could have figured it out if my life depended on it. And the thermal sight never came out of it’s container. The few times we tried to train with it, either the bottles weren’t full, or the batteries wouldn’t hold a charge.

      Still, when I was a lightfighter, it was better than nothing.

      It was pretty fun to shoot as well.

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