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Soldier's Load and Combat Readiness

by SFC Robert J. Ehrlich

Chapter 10:  Observations on the 60mm Mortars at the JRTC
Table of Contents

Day seven at the JRTC and it showed on the faces of the young infantrymen. Typical central Louisiana weather in November, the nights were turning, often marked by heavy rains. The platoon sergeant worked hard to keep the troops motivated and moving under their combat loads. No one wanted to be cold or wet, so the rucks were especially heavy. With ammo, rations, and water, each soldier carried well over 100 pounds of gear. After seven days of constant operations, the effects of that weight were showing. Even the fittest of the platoon were hollow-eyed with fatigue. Their reactions were slow and their minds fuzzy. They rucked up and moved on toward their next mission, an attack on a suspected strong point five clicks away. Less than 500 meters into the movement, the tired point man missed seeing movement ahead as he cleared the edge of a small grove. The opposing force (OPFOR) ambushed the platoon with complete surprise. No one survived.

Fatigue is the infantryman's life in the field. Without rest or support, fatigue can reduce an effective unit to a leaderless gaggle even in the most benevolent terrain. With rough terrain and bad weather, the effects of fatigue multiply exponentially. The more hills you have to climb and the worse the weather, the faster you are going to tire. Physical training reduces that rate, but does not eliminate it. On the other hand, carrying too much weight accelerates exhaustion. This is common sense, right? Maybe so, but common sense does not always prevail.

Graph of average platoon soldier's load

Observation: The average rifle platoon soldier's load at the JRTC is 91 pounds.

As shown in the chart above which analyzed 13 rotations, soldiers carry too much weight. Typically, each soldier is wearing or carrying at least load-bearing equipment (LBE), Kevlar helmet, weapon, and rucksack or assault pack. This average did not include battle dress uniforms (BDUs), T-shirts, socks, underwear, and boots.

Graph of average platoon soldier's load in cold weather

The average cold weather soldier's load is 101.5 pounds.

During cold weather rotations the weight of the rucksack increases. This is due to carrying extra clothing and cold weather gear. Increases in the load include poncho, rain gear, and Gortex gear. Again, basic soldier clothing -- BDUs, T-shirts, socks, underwear, and boots -- are not included.

Graph of average platoon soldier's load in warm weather

The average warm weather soldier's load is 88.3 pounds.

During the summer months, the soldier's load is more manageable. The need for "Hawk gear" (often 20 pounds) goes away. However, much of that reduction is offset by the need to carry more water. As much as 75 percent of the soldiers at the JRTC carry "camel-bak" water pouches in addition to their canteens. Once again, BDUs, T-shirts, socks, underwear, and boots are not included in these weights.

Graph of difference in cold weather and warm weather soldier loads

The difference is?

The average difference between cold weather and warm weather at the soldier level is 13.2 pounds. As you can see by the various charts, soldiers carry extremely heavy loads even in warm weather. That weight slows movement down and fatigues the soldier faster than if the platoon went into combat with a lighter load.

Why do leaders and soldiers consistently overload themselves?

That's a very good question and it has hampered light infantry (especially U.S. light infantry) operations for years. Load-bearing equipment, designed as a combat harness, goes back for hundreds of years. Everything else -- packs, rucksacks, and extra water -- is by definition comfort items added on top of the combat load. Those comfort items may make a soldier comfortably dead if he is too tired to function. Two of the biggest factors relating to soldier's load are:

1. Tailoring the load to the mission.

2. Soldier confidence in the logistical system.

Tailoring the load

Most everyone has seen the movie Platoon, where the squad leader in Vietnam reached into new guy Charlie Sheen's rucksack and dumped unnecessary equipment. Soldiers coming to JRTC need the same thing: leaders performing good pre-combat inspections (PCIs). The packing list should be tailored to the mission at hand, with all the extras and "nice-to-have" items eliminated.

Soldier confidence in the logistical system

Soldiers at the platoon level lack confidence in the logistical system. This has to be addressed at the company and higher level. When platoons request water and supplies, those requests must be command priorities. Effective CSS planning should forecast when those demands will arise. Emergency resupply, a reactive mode, should be the exception. That goes for all phases of operations. In the defense, for example, platoons should not have to wait for D-Bags, chemical gear, and platoon defense kits. They should get these critical items as soon as they begin preparations for defensive operations.

Long-term effects

Training soldiers not to rely on the logistical system trains the logistical system to perform at a substandard level. Yet to provide the support needed, logistical operators must have both the physical assets and the training opportunity necessary to perform their mission during operations. They also require support, especially security. Resupply vehicles should not go unescorted on the battlefield. Resupply and other logistical efforts are prime targets. Consider that:

1. To succeed, soldiers must be supplied.

2. Logistical back haul is often the mainstay for casualty evacuation.

3. Supplies lost to the enemy often sustain the enemies' operations.

An even more direct effect of overloading soldiers is the fatigue and stress on the soldiers themselves. Though the common sense rule of "the higher the load, the slower the movement" applies, it is often ignored. The effects can be more long term with an increased risk of back injury. Doctors in the Army even have a term for it - "Infantry back." Symptoms are low back pain, fatigued spinal muscles, back strains, or, in extreme cases, scoliosis (curvature of the spine).

If this isn't new, what does "doctrine" say?

FM 7-8, Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad, 22 April 1992, Chapter 5, Annex I, says the following about soldier's load: "Determing the soldier's load is a critical leader task. The soldier's load is always METT-T dependent and must be closely monitored. Soldiers cannot afford to carry unnecessary equipment into the battle. Every contingency cannot be covered. The primary consideration is not how much a soldier can carry, but how much he can carry without impaired combat effectiveness."

The manual states that the soldier's combat load should not exceed 60 pounds. That limit combines the fighting load -- LBE, kevlar, weapon, and magazines with ammo weighing about 35 pounds -- and the approach march load rucksack and selected items at 22 pounds. Remaining equipment and materials needed for sustained combat operations form the sustainment load to be brought forward by company and battalion when needed.

The bottom line: Soldiers need a packing list that makes sense.

Carry what is required for mission accomplishment, but allow a minimum of comfort items. Train your CSS operators to make up the difference. Leaders, beginning at the team level, should conduct good PCIs to enforce that the packing list is adhered to. (A sample of a packing list is on page 6, including the weight of everything a soldier might wear or carry. In this suggested list, "worn" includes the uniform, boots, etc., not normally weighed during JRTC rotations.) There are four configurations with this type of packing list and load:

Fighting load - Only what is worn = 36.9 pounds
Fighting light - Worn plus the assault pack = 59 pounds
Approach march - Worn plus the rucksack = 72.9 pounds
Everything - Worn plus the rucksack and assault pack = 95 pounds

During JRTC rotations, the initial configuration affects the soldier's load average. Some units entered the box at fighting light (59 pounds), some at the approach march (72.9 pounds). Of the 13 rotations tracked, only one unit entered the fight at fighting load (36.9 pounds). Typically, summer rotations entered the fight at fighting light (59 pounds) or the approach load (72.9 pounds), and the winter rotations entered the fight either approach load (72.9 pounds) or everything (95 pounds). Putting this into mission, enemy, troops, terrain, and time available (METT-T) perspective, the summer rotations came into the fight between 30.1 and 52.2 pounds heavier than they should have been. The winter rotations came into the fight between 12.1 and 34.2 pounds too heavy. The net effect was that units overloaded themselves so much during summer rotations that they moved like they were fighting in winter and risked heat injury in doing so.

If a unit insists on the "bring everything" configuration, the best solution is to enter the area of operations, occupy an assembly area, and drop the rucksack. Continue with the movement and clearance of a sector with assault packs. Near the hours of darkness, recover rucksacks, move to a patrol base, and again drop rucks. Continue with night combat operations, ambushes, and patrols on assault packs. Recover the rucks at sunrise and move them to a new assembly area (AA) to repeat the cycle. Although still available, this avoids carrying the "everything" load in favor of tailoring carried loads to mission-essential items.

Conclusion: Common sense IS NOT commonly used! Be uncommon and use yours!

Consider the risk versus gain aspects of combat loading your soldiers. What are you risking when you configure your soldiers for combat? Answer: your mission and your soldiers. If soldiers have their mission-essential equipment, they may be uncomfortable at times, but they will be able to sustain their combat effectiveness. If soldiers are being overloaded and they collapse from the weight of comfort items, they may not even reach the objective. By overloading their men with comfort-related items, leaders are in effect expending them before they have the opportunity to achieve the mission.


Sample Packing List

Radio set, machine gun tripod, Dragon, Javelin Sight, 120' rope, Skedco, CLS bag, and marking kit as appropriate.

Mortar, machine gun ammunition, and AT weapons cross-loaded as appropriate.

During cold weather, ensure soldiers pack poly-pro underwear, and Gortex jacket and trousers. Gortex jacket and trousers = 4.0 pounds

Other special items - airborne items (single point release harness, lowering line) = 3.5 pounds.

Total load of soldier with ruck, assault pack, LBE, K-Pot, weapon, and uniform would be approximately 95 pounds, not counting AT4, 2x 60mm rds, Gortex, airborne items, or poly-pro underwear. Bear in mind, the idea is to drop rucks and operate during patrolling with assault packs or the fighting load, then come back to rucksacks during hours of darkness and set up ambush sites or resupply for missions.

Chapter 10:  Observations on the 60mm Mortars at the JRTC
Table of Contents

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