Battlefield Mobility And The Soldier's Load
Major William L. Ezell, USMC
SUBJECT AREA Warfighting
Title. BATTLEFIELD MOBILITY AND THE SOLDIER'S LOAD
Thesis. To ensure that our forces possess the speed and
agility necessary to successfully concentrate and win on
tomorrow's battlefields, the Marine Corps must educate its
leaders on the concept of "load tailoring" in order to
eliminate the dangerous overloading of our infantryman.
Issue. The problem of overloading the individual fighting
man has been with us since the beginning of time and
continues unsolved into the period of modern warfare.
Numerous examples of soldier overloading litter the pages
of history. For over two centuries, military leaders and
researchers have sought the answer to the elusive optimum
load. Despite countless studies and numerous wars, neither
researcher nor commander have been able to agree on a
solution which will satisfy the requirements of the average
infantryman. The inability to resolve this issue continues
to threaten the mobility of individual Marines and their
units on future battlefields.
Conclusion. Overloading of the individual infantryman is a
problem caused by leaders, and can be fixed by leaders.
The solution will not require a single piece of new gear,
nor will it require an increase to our manpower. It will
require a commitment by leaders at all levels to educate
themselves and their men on the problems of overloading and
their many solutions.
BATTLEFIELD MOBILITY AND THE SOLDIER'S LOAD
Thesis Statement. To ensure that our forces possess the speed
and agility necessary to successfully concentrate and win on
tomorrow's battlefields, the Marine Corps must educate its
leaders on the concept of "load tailoring" in order to eliminate
the dangerous overloading of our infantryman.
I. Soldier's Load
A. Historical Perspective
B. Roots of the Problem
C. Technology's Impact
II. Load Planning
A. The Human Factor
B. Optimum Load Concepts
C. Load Tailoring
III. Training and Education
BATTLEFIELD MOBILITY AND THE SOLDIER'S LOAD
The problem of overloading the individual fighting man
has been with the us since the beginning of time and
continues unsolved into today's warfare. This problem has
been the subject of a great deal of research and writing.
The age old question of what to carry into battle, and what
to leave behind, remains a perplexing dilemma to commanders
and soldiers alike.
History has demonstrated that some military leaders
understood and took steps to deal with the problems
associated with overloading the individual soldier.
Napoleon was one of the first commanders to publish
guidance to his soldiers on a fighting load appropriate for
engaging the enemy. Although his load often varied, he
normally required "...forearm and ammunition, entrenching
tool, knapsack and four days' rations." (5:219)
In America, Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson provided the
military establishment with its first lesson in load
planning and its influence on tactics. Jackson's
magnificent "foot cavalry" of the Shenandoah Valley
campaign of 1862 marched and fought 670 miles in 48 days
without any appreciable loss in effectiveness.
Descriptions of Jackson's hard-fighting divisions portray
units who discarded all but the essential equipment to
fight and win on the battlefield:
The coatee issued in the early days of the war had
already given place to a short-waisted and single-
breasted jacket. Overcoats were soon discarded. ... Nor
did the knapsack long survive. ... But the men still
clung to their blankets and waterproof sheets, worn in
a roll over their their left shoulder. (4:168)
Unfortunately, history is replete with examples of
commanders who turned their men into beasts of burden, and
consequently lost the ability to move their men and
individual equipment to the decisive place on the
Hardy Roman Legionnaires on the march carried 80-pound
loads on the long spiked stakes slung across their
shoulders. Byzantine infantrymen found themselves with
similar loads. Their ration carts and pack horses did
little to relieve their individual loads. During the
American Revolution, British soldiers "fought their loads"
in addition to the American colonists. (10: 25)
During the First World War, the French "poilu's" load
weighed 85 pounds. On campaign in North Africa, the French
Foreign Legion marched 25 miles a day with 100-pound
packs. In the equally inhospitable terrain of Burma during
World War Two, British infantrymen in Wingate's Chindits
carried 70- to 90-pound loads. American soldiers in
Vietnam carried packs whose weight made them disinclined to
crawl when under fire. (6:120) "They walked," wrote F.J.
West in Small Unit Action in Vietnam, "because they were
tired and it was easier to move than to stand. The weight
and bulk of their equipment contributed greatly to this
In October 1983, the United States invaded the island
of Grenada. Although the island was small and enemy
capability considered to be minimal, the soldiers in the
assault carried enormous loads. When Army Rangers jumped
onto the runway at Salinas airfield, the average load
carried by each man was 167 pounds. (7: 61)
What was the difference between those armies that
carried the appropriate load for the task at hand, and
those that did not? The answer is that experienced combat
leaders and their staffs knew what had to be carried by the
individual and what should be transported for him. In
other words, they knew what was important and what was not.
Having dissected the problem of overloading and its
impact on the ability of our infantrymen to fight on the
modern battlefield, we must now solve the problem.
Thankfully, the solution will not require a single piece of
new gear, nor will it require an increase to our manpower.
Instead, it will require a commitment by leaders at all
levels to educate themselves and their men on the problems
of overloading. Acknowledgment of the problem is one part
of the remedy. To ensure that our forces possess the speed
and agility necessary to concentrate and win on tomorrow's
battlefields, the Marine Corps must educate its leaders on
the concept of "load tailoring" in order to eliminate the
dangerous overloading of our infantryman.
From the stone age to the industrial age, the
individual soldier has been forced to bear the same burdens
as his ancestors. Despite computer-age solutions to many
perplexing military problems, few technological advances
have been made to lessen the total weight carried by
today's infantrymen. Although analysts and technicians
continue to research and test lighter equipment and
clothing, technology continues to demonstrate that it will
never provide more than a partial solution to the problem.
For example, when the Army replaced the 7.62mm M14 rifle
with the 5.56mm M16 rifle, it achieved a weight reduction
of some four pounds. But because the 5.56mm round of
ammunition weighed less than the 7.62mm round, infantry
leaders insisted that their soldiers carry more rounds.
(1:9) As a result, little progress was made in the effort
to reduce the net weight carried by the individual
As we have seen, history's "great captains" recognized
that tactical mobility is one of the great principles of
war and that the ability to gain this advantage is often
paramount to victory. Warfare throughout the ages has
demonstrated that technology will only serve as a partial
solution to the problem. Although no load is the ideal
load for fighting efficiency and every pound an infantryman
carries cuts down his mobility and the tactical mobility of
his unit, the solution of the load carrying problem will be
a compromise between what the individual must carry to do
his job and the ideal. The soldier must carry the minimum
essential load and in a way that causes the least adverse
effect on his operating efficiency. (2: 7) Today's
commanders must give serious consideration to the problem
of overloading and its effects on battlefield mobility.
The solution will not be found in a simple set of
prescriptive rules; risk acceptance and sound judgement
will continue to be the foundation upon which any viable
answer must rest. We must continue to guard against the
tendency to let technology solve our problems. As FMFM l
warns, "...technology cannot and should not-attempt to
eliminate man from the process of waging war."
The purpose of load planning is twofold. First, it
allows the commander to make an intelligent decision based
on the information available. He does this by analyzing
and evaluating the courses of action that have been
presented by his S-3 and by considering the estimates of
supportability presented by his staff. Second, it
recognizes the potential impact of the soldier-load problem
and emphasizes the need to carry only what is necessary.
An important consideration in determining the proper load
for the individual is a thorough understanding of the
physiological capabilities of the person carrying the
load. Finally, the impact of psychological and emotional
factors upon a unit and its men must be considered.
THE HUMAN FACTOR
Analyzing the soldier's load physiologically raises the
question of what is the physical load-carrying capacity of
the average fighting man in battle. It is clear that any
attempt to maximize a Marine's load-carrying capabilities
can only be relevant if all sides of the problem are
As far back as 1870, European scientists initiated
scientific investigations to measure the physiological cost
to the soldiers of carrying various loads under various
degrees of temperature. These and other studies in Europe
and the United States led to a determination of energy
expenditures by the human body in terms of calories per
hour for various forms of physical activity (e.g.,
marching) and weight of loads carried. These studies
concluded that a soldier could sustain indefinitely a
maximum energy expenditure of 5000 to 6000 calories for 24
hours. Since the normal body operating functions and
minimum living activity requirements amount to an
expenditure of about 3200 calories per 24 hours in a
temperate climate, we see that approximately 1800 to 2800
calories are available for the additional physical
activities of marching, running, digging, load carrying and
the like. (11:3-4)
One study of particular interest was conducted by the
Institute William Frederick in Germany in: the last few
years of the 19th century. The institute was particularly
interested in measuring the effect on infantrymen who were
carrying different loads under varying conditions of
temperature. The research demonstrated that a load of 48
pounds could be carried by a well-conditioned soldier in
cool weather with little difficulty. However, in warm
weather the same load produced an impairment in physical
strength, and the soldiers did not return to a normal state
until some time during the following day.
Other German experiments focused on the effects
produced by increasingly heavier loads. The results
demonstrated that soldiers continued to show physical
distress regardless of the degree of physical conditioning.
The study, therefore, concluded that it is impossible to
condition the average soldier to march with a load once it
reaches 69 pounds no matter how much training he is given.
(8:48-49) This conclusion is in direct conflict with many
infantry and specialized unit training philosophies today.
Energy expenditure is another part of the puzzle which
is essential to the infantryman's sustainability on the
battlefield and merits further discussion. First, it is
important to determine what causes energy expenditure by an
individual soldier. Next, we will review potential methods
which will reduce the amount of energy expended on the
The energy (energy cost) to perform a given task is
dependent on a number of variables. The primary variables
include the total weight of the load, rate of movement,
grade or slope of the terrain, the firmness of the ground,
and the physical condition, size, and fitness of the
soldier. (14:LES) It is worthy of note that these factors
deal almost exclusively with the physical aspects of war
while neglecting in large part those all-important moral
aspects of war and their expected impact on the
battlefield. In order to gain a multidimensional approach
to the problem we must look beyond those physical aspects
common to warfare. The psychological and emotional factors
which impact on the individual Marine in combat are
paramount to any analysis of energy loss. In battle,
stresses caused by fear, hunger, shock, panic, and mental
fatigue are interdependent. As described by one veteran of
Omaha Beach in World War II:
We were all surprised to find that we had suddenly
gone weak, and we were surprised to discover how much
fire men can move through without getting hit. Under
fire we learned what we had never been told--that fear
and fatigue are about the same in their effect on an
The second and perhaps more difficult of the issues is
how to reduce the amount of energy expended due to
psychological stress. Recognizing that symptoms of fear
and fatigue are similar in both appearance and in cure
gives us our first hint to the solution. The following
passage provides a superb historical example:
During the Korean conflict, the remnants of the Army's
7th Division which the 1st Marine Division brought out
over the ice of the Chosin in a heroic exploit, had
been enveloped by the enemy for the greater part of
one week. The cold, privation, and the suffering at
the hands of the Chinese Communist Forces had been
extremely harsh throughout. In the case of these
men, Major General Oliver Smith felt that at least 48
hours of total rest was essential. At the end of that
time, he concluded by personal inspection that the
ones who had escaped wounds and frostbite could march
out with the column from Hagaru-ri and do normal duty.
At the heart of the solution is the leader. For it is
the leader, and he alone, who will make the critical
decisions as to the cause and solution for the unit's
degradation of fighting power. General Smith recognized
the problem and prescribed sleep in order to bring his
Marines back to fighting capability. In each combat
situation, the circumstances change but the fact remains
that the average individual will continue to lose energy
from psychological stress as well as physical exertion. So
what can commanders do to adequately prepare their units
for the rigors of combat before the first shots are fired?
Research indicates that infantrymen must be conditioned
for more than just running to prepare for combat. In fact,
most infantrymen in combat will do little sustained
running, but must be able to perform high levels of
anaerobic activity such as sprinting, jumping, climbing,
and low crawling once they come in contact with the enemy.
Training should also include exposure to realistic training
exercises in which the sights, sounds and violence of the
battlefield are simulated to the best of the commander's
ability. Although the incredible hardships, violence and
destruction of war can never be totally recreated, efforts
to inject realism into training should be made a priority.
This approach to training will greatly aid individuals and
leaders in their search for the optimum load that their men
should carry in order to be most effective for the
situation and mission at hand.
OPTIMUM LOAD CONCEPTS
Numerous examples of overloading soldiers litter the
pages of history. Fortunately, so do the lessons learned.
In the continued search for the elusive optimum load,
researchers have conducted experiments and studied numerous
historical examples of the soldier's load. A brief
discussion of the more significant studies will serve as an
important reference point in the continued search to
provide a framework for a solution to the optimum load.
About 1900, the French, British, and Germans began
experimenting with the weight and placement of the
individual soldier loads. Working separately, all three
countries reached the same conclusion: the maximum load
which soldiers carry should not exceed one-third of their
own body weight. (3:17)
In 1920, a British study discovered that armies
traditionally carried between 55 and 60 pound loads. The
commission finally reached the following conclusion:
... not in excess of forty to forty-five pounds was a
tolerable load for an average-sized man on a road
march. More specifically, ... on the march, training
purposes, the optimum load, including clothing and
personal belongings, is one-third of body weight.
At the conclusion of World War Two, S.L.A. Marshall
concluded in The Soldier's Load and the Mobility of a
Nation that the average American soldier's optimum load for
marching during a training period is slightly more than 51
pounds. Marshall further believed that the maximum combat
load for the individual should never be more than
four-fifths of optimal training load of 51 pounds.
(8:70-71) This figure accounted for the effects of fear
combined with the fatigue actually experienced in battle.
A 1954 Marine Corps Development center study concluded
that the maximum load for a rifleman should be lowered to
55 pounds for march conditions and 40 pounds for combat.
This study further revealed that the average load for a
Marine Rifle Squad was an unacceptable 71 pounds per
Marine. (13: 42)
In 1971, the Marine Advanced Recognition, Combat and
Exploitation Study (MARCES) was initiated to develop a
systems concept for a post-1980 infantry platoon and to
apply advanced technology to that concept. The study
identified minimum and maximum weights that can be carried
most economically by combat-committed Marines, while still
retaining some degree of combat effectiveness. These
weights were 30% and 40% of the individual's body weight,
Recognizing the ongoing nature of the problem of
overloading the"' individual infantryman, the Marine Corps
and Army have been jointly working on a project referred to
as the "Integrated Individual Fighting System." The
program includes field testing of commercial items, as well
as equipment already in the system. In addition, the
program attempts to take a systematic approach in analyzing
how much gear is being carried and in what manner it is
being carried. (7:62)
Results of this research indicated that the ideal
soldier's load was 30 percent of individual body weight, or
48 pounds, and the maximum load a soldier could carry
should not exceed 45 percent of his body weight, or 72
pounds. Research further indicated that training can only
improve load-carrying capability by 10 to 20 percent at
The joint study was successful in eliminating
nonessential items of equipment in order to increase the
mobility and speed of the individual infantryman.
Improvements in the load-bearing equipment presently under
consideration for the Marine Corps is a direct result of
initiatives created from this project. Undoubtedly, the
purchases of newer, lightweight equipment will continue to
make small inroads towards solving the problem.
Studies are helpful, but, it is critical that
commanders at all levels fight smarter by deciding the
optimum load for their units with the understanding of what
impact the assigned load will have on their mission and
their Marines. Victory on today's battlefield will depend
directly on the abi1ity of units to create momentum by
using a combination of speed and concentration. The
commander who is able to concentrate forces at the decisive
time and place against his adversary's center of gravity
will exponentially increase his chances for success.
Overloading is a problem which is more easily resolved
using "brain power" rather than "back power." And it is
with this premise that leaders must start to attack this
widespread problem. As stated in FMFM 1, Warfighting,
".... an officer's principal weapon is his mind." Leaders
must collectively recognize the problems of overloading and
resolve themselves to reach a viable solution for the
Marines under their command. Ultimately the leader is the
key, for he can negate all the planning, and studies on the
During this process, the commander's staff will play a
critical role by preparing an accurate estimate of the
situation for the operation to be conducted. Armed with
this information, the commander can use his judgement to
assess the situation and publish a well-thought-out load
plan. Although the estimate-of-the-situation process is a
part of the solution, it is a lengthy topic beyond the
scope and length of this paper.
The basic assumption which underlies the solution is
the fact that sufficient numbers of Marines will not be
available to carry all of the ammunition and equipment
required by the multidimensional battlefield in
mid-to-high-intensity conflicts. The problem is
exacerbated by the tendency to plan for the worst case
contingency and plan the load accordingly. The commander
must resist this temptation. Or worse yet, pressed by
time, many staffs will merely duplicate the mistakes of
their predecessors by copying "last year's order."
A technique available to the commander for addressing
the problem of overloading is the concept of task tailoring
organizations, equipment, and weapons. Similar to the
MAGTF, the organization and equipment can be structured
from the ground up, to meet the mission's requirements.
The ability to task organize is an important concept
which makes each MAGTF a unique organization. Task
organizing is the forming of an organization to carry out a
specific task. (12:A-29) It provides flexibility and focus
to the organization of a unit based upon the estimate of
the situation and the commander's judgement. These concepts
can also be used at lower levels to help solve our
problem. Task organization at the tactical level can
provide a means by which the individual load can be
lessened. An example of how this might be done is by
combining all 60mm mortar sections in the battalion into
one platoon to accomplish a specific mission. This would
allow massing of fires for a specific purpose and for a
greater centralization of transportation requirements to
provide the required ammunition for the entire unit. This
situation would in many cases reduce the number of mortar
rounds spread among an already overburdened company of
infantryman. Although the example has drawbacks, it is
intended to demonstrate the type of innovative thinking
which must be explored. Many factors, including the
unwillingness of commanders to give up their Marines to
other units, are among the most commonly recognized
obstacles remaining at the lowest levels.
An essential component in solving the problem of
overloading is the concept of "load tailoring." Load
tailoring is essentially divided into two parts:
task-equipping and task-arming. Both these concepts are
new to Marine units. With each of these concepts, the
primary stumbling block is a tendency to bring what we
think we will need--and then a whole lot more just in
case! Effective task-equipping requires commanders and
their staffs to take risks based on detailed estimates.
The requirements of a certain task may allow for the
stripping down of a unit's gear to a bare minimum for a
particular mission. An example of this would be
elimination of the gas mask and MOPP suit when engaging an
enemy unit which does not possess an NBC capability. Even
though the unit SOP may require that those items be
carried, the commander should take exception in favor of
sound tactical judgement.
Task-arming is a concept which is a bat more foreign to
Marine Corps units. Task-arming requires the commander to
tailor his ordnance and weapons load based on his estimate
of the situation. For instance, certain missions and
terrain will severely limit the use of the SMAW or Dragon
weapons system. If this is the case, those weapon systems
should be left in the rear for transportation forward at a
later phase in the battle. The Marines from those units
may be required to perform other non-standard infantry
tasks during the interim period.
The amount of ammunition carried by the individual or
crew must be analyzed to insure that units are not
needlessly loaded down with excessive weight.
Historically, military units have gone into battle with an
intense fear of running out of ammunition. In World War
II, Vietnam, and Grenada, soldiers and Marines have labored
with ammunition loads completely out of proportion to the
mission at hand. Yet history does not lend support to the
perceived need to carry extraordinary loads of ammunition.
During the Korean War, U.S. rifleman learned to carry only
94 to 120 rounds of ball ammunition, after their
experiences of moving up and down the rugged Korean
terrain. (9:42) Despite these reductions, few historical
examples from the Korean or other wars reflect a unit being
destroyed because of an ammunition shortage. In fact,
running low on ammunition has a perverse sort of advantage.
When the individual believes he may run out of ammunition
he becomes much more efficient and effective with each
Task-arming has much to offer towards reducing the
unit's load requirements. Resistance to this concept stems
from a lack of confidence in our Marines' abilities to
alternate between weapons, weapons accountability, and a
desire to keep all assets in one spot for the unexpected
contingency. The resistance to these new concepts is not
insurmountable and can be overcome through training and
TRAINING AND EDUCATION
Who then should be the focus for this educational
process--the private, the corporal, the SNCOs or perhaps
the captains and majors? If we ask the average fire team
member the same question, he would probably answer that
anyone who had the power to establish a load plan should be
the target audience. The battalion commander would
probably cast his vote for anyone that can take positive
steps toward improving the problems associated with
overloading. In this both are correct. No one rank has a
corner on the market of new ideas. Directives, orders, and
SOPs will never solve the problem of overloading the
individual rifleman; not only have they been unable to
provide a solution but they often have been part of the
As a first step, false perceptions must be dispelled.
Foremost among these misconceptions is the idea that
Marines must be loaded to meet every possible contingency.
Second, Marines must assume that the supply system will be
effective, and load plans should be made accordingly.
Marines have long held to the idea that supply will
fail when they need it most. No class or lecture will
change perceptions rooted in bad experiences or passed down
through rumors. But what will work is the integration of
all elements of the MAGTF at the "grass root" level.
Marines who get familiar with the duties of combat service
support Marines during routine educational and training
exercises will gain confidence in them. Cross-training
has numerous positive effects when conducted between
infantry and a supporting unit's personnel
Other types of training exercises may require a small
unit leader to practice load planning based upon his
estimate of the situation and his higher commander's
intent. As part of the evolution, he must justify his
decisions, clearly state which risks he is willing to take,
and define the prescribed load. The final step in the
process is to experiment with a variety of load plans and
configurations, and determine which load is appropriate,
given the situation. This type of training mentality will
help build a data base of information and will help leaders
make decisions based on "recognitional" experience.
Finally, the concept of standardization of combat loads
must be taught and practiced. Leaders should make every
effort to minimize the "parade mentality" which many
associate with the standardization of gear and equipment.
advantages gained from standardization of certain parts of
the fighting and existence loads should be highlighted as
they apply to a variety of situations.
Current Marine Corps basic enlisted and officer
training courses do not use the load-planning concepts
discussed here in training our future warfighters.
Significantly, only now, under the leadership of BGen P.K.
Van Riper, is the 2D Marine Division embarking on a plan to
educate and train Marines and Sailors in these concepts.
Once the focus is clear, training should be
institutionalized throughout Marine schools and FMF units.
If the concepts are completely understood, sound techniques
and procedures will be a natural offshoot.
The theory of training and education discussed here is
an attempt to eradicate the age-old problem of overloading
the individual fighting man. This educational approach
requires leaders to teach concepts until they are
completely understood and accepted. Once the concepts of
load tailoring are clear, the focus should shift to the
application of modern techniques. What worked well last
time may not work this time. Above all, training should
foster self-reliance, initiative, and confidence on the
part of all Marines. The end result will be a Corps of
Marines who will be able to "fight smarter and lighter" and
win on tomorrow's battlefields.
1. Curtis, LTC George; Maj Richard J. Vogel, Maj James E. Wright. "Soldier Load, When Technology Fails" Infantry March-April 87.
2. Evaluation of MARCES Platoon Load Distribution Report, CMC Project 30-70-06, Development Center, MCDEC, January 1971.
3. Galvin, Maj. John R. "the historical aspect: Fighting Weight of the Foot Soldier," Infantry, unknown.
4. Henderson, Col. G.F.R. Stonewall Jackson, New York: Longmans, Green, 1949.
5. HeroId, J. Christopher. The Mind of Napoleon, New York: Columbia University Press, 1955.
6. Holmes, Richard. Acts of War, The Behavior of Men in Battle. The Free Press, New York, New York, 1985.
7. Inghram, Maj. Daniel C. "Lightening the Combat Load," Marine Corps Gazette, March 1987.
8. Marshall, Colonel S.L.A. The Soldier's Load and The Mobility of a Nation, Marine Corps Association, Quantico, Virgina, 1950.
9. Marshall, S.L.A. Infantry Operations and Weapons Usage in Korea. The Johns Hopkins University, Chevy Chase, Maryland, October 1951.
10. Mayville, Capt. William C. "A Soldier's Load." Infantry, January-February 1987.
11. Nottage, LtCol. Paul E. "The Overburdened Infantryman," Infantry Jan-Feb. 1964.
12. OH 6-1 Ground combat Operations, Quantico, Virginia, January 1988.
13. Spence, Capt. Thomas R. "Lighten the "Marine's Load," Proceedings, January
14. Warren, Dr. Philip. "Load Expert System," U.S. Army Natick RD&E Center, Natick, Mass. November 1990: computer program.
Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list