“Too heavy” leads to “Too slow” leads to . . . dead?

Strategy Page outlines the dilemma facing the designers of modern infantry protective gear.

The U.S. Army finally (in 2017) agreed to do a study of the impact of the weight American infantry carry into combat and the impact of that weight on performance. The troops have been complaining about this weight issue for some time. The average weight carried is 54 kg (119 pounds) and while about a third of that can be dropped in an emergency, most of it (weapons and protective gear) cannot. The IOTV (Improved Outer Tactical Vest) and helmet account for a third of the weight. Worse the IOTV restricts movement and this is a major shortcoming in combat.

Because of this, the U.S. Army is having second thought about its IOTV and current body armor designs in general.

. . .

What the army has not tweaked is the weight and, to a lesser extent, the restrictive nature of the vest. While the troops appreciate changes that make it easier to move about while encumbered by the vest, what was bothering troops most, especially the infantry who have to run around on foot wearing IOTV while fighting, was the weight … Marine and Army experts point out that the drive (created mainly by politicians and the media) for “better” body armor resulted in heavier and more restrictive (to battlefield mobility) models. This has more than doubled the minimum weight you could carry into combat. The report agreed with troop complaints that the excessive weight caused increased fatigue, reduced speed in combat and made it difficult to use weapons quickly and effectively when the enemy was encountered. The report also pointed out that a third of the troops shipped out of the theater for treatment of injuries were suffering from weight-related problems (musculoskeletal injuries) and that was twice as many suffered from enemy fire.

. . .

This weight issue is a relatively recent problem. Until the 1980s, you could strip down (for actual fighting) to your helmet, weapon (assault rifle and knife), ammo (hanging from webbing on your chest, along with grenades), canteen and first aid kit on your belt, and your combat uniform. Total load was 13-14 kg (about 30 pounds), which is as much as the IOTV alone weighs. You could move freely and quickly while carrying only 14 kg and you quickly found that speed and agility was a lifesaver in combat. But now the minimum load carried is at least twice as much (27 kg) and, worse yet, more restrictive to mobility and speed.

. . .

The enemy has also adapted, knowing that the more heavily encumbered Americans were not as agile or as fast and that could be exploited. The frustration of being slower than your foe often led U.S. troops to exertions that brought on musculoskeletal injuries. The new body armor may protect from bullets and shell fragments but it does nothing for over exuberant troops.

So the soldiers and marines are getting louder in their demands for relief from protection they don’t need and restrictive protective vests that can get them killed.

There’s much more at the link.  Recommended reading.

It’s great that the new protective gear has reduced serious injuries and deaths as much as it has:  but my own memories of running around in an operational zone, carrying all the weight of a 1970’s and 1980’s serviceman, are not happy ones.  Weight is not your friend at the best of times, and in extreme climatic conditions, it’s even more so.  You can become so exhausted that you can’t react quickly enough to the stimulus of gunfire or an ambush, can’t return fire accurately or fast enough to stop someone hitting you or your buddies, and can’t get your mind into gear to deal with injuries or other problems to your buddies that require instant attention.  It’s like your mind is wading through molasses in its efforts to respond – usually unsuccessfully.  It’s terrifying to experience.

I hope the US Army’s study bears fruit.  An infantryman carrying up to 120 pounds of gear is not capable of responding and reacting as fast as he should.  It’s as simple as that.  When it comes to women in combat, it’s even worse, because in general they don’t have the muscle mass to cope with that burden.  It’s almost guaranteed to get them killed or injured at far higher rates than male soldiers.



  1. Just before leaving Iraq in 2004, I weighed myself with and without my "walking around the base" gear. It ended up being 65 pounds.

    120 pounds as an average load is insane. If you watch videos or look at pictures of our troops in combat, you don't see them going prone very often. They take a knee instead. With all that weight, when you go prone, you can't get up again without assistance.

  2. Another reason you don't see soldiers going prone much is the placement of stuff in the load carrying vest/body armor (much of the time, the pouches that hold the gear are attached directly to the body armor (IOTV) with MOLLE loops.) Usually there's a bunch of stuff (usually magazines, but individual arrangements may vary) wrapped around the soldier's rib cage. This makes going prone uncomfortable, at best, and always awkward. You CANNOT low crawl with your gear arranged this way, and the high crawl can be quite a challenge, especially for shorter troops. All that stuff sticking out from your chest gets in the way.

    With the old style, belt and suspenders LBE, the gear was around the soldier's hips, on the belt. The ammo pouches were usually around the front corners of the hips, usually near the 10 and 2 o'clock positions, or just slightly inboard of that. Even for a skinny guy like myself, they weren't in the way when going prone. If it was, you could undo the belt buckle and let them flop out to the side a bit and get low.

    As far as the weight goes, in relation to female soldiers. When I was a student at the Benning School for Boys (2 trips – basic and advanced officer courses) the writing instructors were female civilians. In their office, they had a note on the bulletin board that read "No amount of legislation if going to make a 110 pound female do anything but sit on a 100 lb rucksack."

  3. Oh, and all those muscle-skeletal injuries (which include dorked up backs from wearing that heavy gear for long periods of time) result in lots more disability payments to those soldiers from the VA. Even for soldiers who never deploy to combat (and who thus are not being potentially saved from flying bits of metal.)

  4. Hey Peter;

    Dave is correct on the old style LBE, we had it set up so we could lay prone with our stuff around us, I had my LBE with 4 pouches of M16 ammo, 2 canteens, my bayonet sheath, and my old school butt pack. We were able to shoot, move and communicate. We also had a smaller pack that we could wear sepertely and would drop it when necessary. I think the changeover happened because people saw the "chest pouches" the Soviets and their client states would use and thought it was a better idea, well there are no absolutes, a chest rig can be better than an LBE setup on certain situations…it isn't the catchall and that is the problem. As far as the armor goes, I knew of people that used the "kevlar vest" to string their their LBE through it, it worked well for spreading the weight of the gear over the body but it was bulky. and you add the Kevlar pot we wore and it started looking like Ninja turtles. And the weight increased because they were adding more gear according to SOP.

  5. Movement of troops on the ground has been a serious problem since WWI hasn't it? The pack, iirc, on the Doughboys was a hindrance, along with gas masks need to counter a new threat. The loads described just do not make intuitive sense to me, a non-military outsider looking in. How does carrying around 100+ pounds of anything make a fighter anything but a better target? Good luck pursuing or evading anything quicker than a sloth. Concealing? Stealth? I just don't understand.

  6. The amount of weight that the current infantryman is carrying/wearing is equivalent to what a fully armored mounted knight wore in the 15th century, before the first lance pass (where, after the lance is broken, pieces-parts of armor start getting tossed, starting with the heavy close-helm.)

    The basic load-out should include only the weapons, ammo, personal protection (armor,) comm and basic sundries, and should only max out at 30-40lbs. Carried properly, as you all said, on the shoulders and hips, leaving the chest and belly clear to get low or close.

    Then and only then should additional gear be added in easily removed chunks for short distance carrying.

    Is there a place for a 120lb kit? Yes. In a situation where light infantry has to ruck it into some inaccessible place, sure, but when they get to that place they should be able to drop off the ancillary piles quickly, stripping down to basic equipment again.

    And there is a need for a heavily kitted, heavily armored fighter (like a SEAL or such) but, well, every army has their freaks and beserkers.

    Now, if only we had some way to carry troops near to a patrol or battle area, and to supply and resupply during battle or a patrol. Like, well, trucks or helicopters or air-dropped or by boat or by mule or…

    100lb ruck-marches should be for getting ready for war. Not for actual war.

  7. During the mid/late 90s, 100 lbs was our basic load.
    45 lbs for deuce gear (load bearing vest, belt, buttpack, bayonet, full canteens, magazines, gas mask, e-tool, poncho and wubbie, first aid kit, and miscellaneous crap mandated by the BC.)
    35 lbs. of flak jacket (when dry. It wasn't unusual to fully saturate it with sweat. Which wouldn't double the weight, but it sure felt like it!)
    7 lbs for rifle.
    6 lbs or so for helmet and liner.
    Plus the weight of your clothes and boots…

    The military declared my maximum permissible weight was 186 lbs. based on height and BMI.
    There were humps when I was carrying that much before even grabbing a piece of crew serve.

  8. The logic of the whole thing boils down to one thing, and one thing only: A clear inability to properly prioritize. We've been dealing with this same syndrome since Vietnam, and still haven't come up with a decent answer to the problem.

    You have to make a choice: Either your guys are going to carry around enough armor, ammo, food, and water to survive whatever they're going to encounter, or you're going to have to accept that the tradeoff is going to be increased casualties due to not having those things. If this enables you to kill more of the enemy, and end the fighting quicker, is that compromise one you want to make? Can you sell that to the soldiers, and their next-of-kin?

    The insurgent has the advantage, because they get to pick when and where they're going to engage; they can get by moving around the area in a man-dress unarmed, pick up cached weapons that were moved by someone else, and then use them to kill our guys; our guys, however, have to be prepared to engage whenever and wherever the enemy makes the choice to engage, giving up the initiative. Which is why we have to leave the wire prepared to fight our way back, every day… Which is where those 120lb loads come from. If we were the ones with the initiative, then we could get away with walking out the gate with a couple of magazines, a rifle, and a smile.

    So… The solution is either deal with the weight, or change the way we're fighting. I think that there's an argument to be made for doing that, and instead of ceding initiative to the enemy automatically, maybe we ought to be acting pre-emptively, and instead of waiting for them to come to us armed and fighting, we ought to be killing them in their sleep. Do that, and you could have our troops out in the countryside carrying the same amount of gear they are, right now…

    Unfortunately, in the real world, that almost certainly ain't gonna work. Were you to make the ROE that liberal, the shiny-happies would go berserk, and call you murderous scum. Maybe what we really need, instead of lighter gear and weapons, is a willingness to tell the shiny-happy types to STFU, and just go about our business of killing the enemy as efficiently as possible.

    Frankly, were it me? I'd change the ROE to allow our guys to engage at will anyone who even looked like a threat–You wouldn't believe how often the enemy has gotten the drop on us because we weren't allowed to engage Afghans who were clearly aiding and abetting the enemy by tracking what we were doing, unarmed, and on motorbikes with hand-held radios. Friends of mine on counter-IED patrols would describe the TTP the Taliban was using, time after time, but they were never allowed to deal with the assholes tracking and reporting on them–'Cos, see, that'd be a "war crime", to kill someone who wasn't clearly identifiable as a combatant and carrying a weapon.

    Our ROE basically makes us too 'effing stupid to live, TBH.

  9. I did some reading about this years ago. It's been an issue longer then some posters have stated. Goes back to Emperor Marius and his "mules". Seems everytime that they come up with a lightweight solution to gear they find something new to add to the load.

  10. The US does not have true light infantry. What it has are infantrymen who are equipped and trained for fighting from vehicles who they try to press into service as modern-day "foot cavalry", entirely forgetting how that is supposed to work.

    Doesn't help that the modern recruit ain't exactly fit for purpose, either. Imagine the waily-waily-woe we would hear, were we to try to field such a thing in this day and age.

    Like it or not, Stonewall Jackson ain't coming back.

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