WASHINGTON -- They call it the "Christmas tree" effect. Defense engineers come up with the latest new gadgets and gizmos to help troops on the battlefield, and just like ornaments being added to the holiday tree they "hang" them on the warfighter.
As a result, troops frequently carry a full combat load of 75, 100 or even 150 pounds.
"What warfighters are carrying today is just ridiculous," said Robert Kinney, director of the Individual Protection Directorate at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center at Natick, Mass. "Our challenge is to provide greater protections and capabilities, but with less weight and bulk."
Kinney and an army of engineers and researchers at the center, which conducts research and development for all the military services, is committed to reducing the load being carried by service members while making them safer and more formidable on the battlefield.
Their goal, he said, is to incorporate new, lighter-weight materials to reduce troop loads by almost half, to 50 pounds or less.
At the same time, Natick engineers are exploring advanced technologies that will give warfighters of the future capabilities once thought restricted to the fictitious Power Rangers, Terminator and Contra series characters.
Tomorrow's warfighters, Kinney said, will wear uniforms with built-in chemical- biological protection, embedded with electric wires and fiber optics that give sophisticated battlefield capabilities. Uniforms will be waterproof and flame- resistant, with built-in insect repellent, antibacterial agents that help stop open injuries from getting infected, and even antimicrobial agents that keep odor in check. New synthetic materials being explored will make the uniforms warmer in cold environments, cooler in hot ones, and lighter in weight and bulk.
In addition, uniforms of the future will be enable troops to adapt quickly to changing conditions. They'll change color, chameleon-style, to reflect the surrounding environment. Boots will come with snap-on soles for different terrains and removable liners that can be replaced when they get wet.
Headgear will take on a whole new dimension, protecting against ballistic and fragmentation while serving as the wearer's personal "control center." Tomorrow's helmets will integrate thermal sensors, video cameras, and chemical and biological sensors. They'll include a visor that can act as a "heads-up display monitor" equivalent to two 17-inch computer monitors in front of the wearer's eyes. And powering all the warfighter's gear will be a single battery, capable of running 24 hours or longer before being recharged.
As futuristic as these technologies may sound, many are being incorporated into the Army's Objective Force Warrior which LeeAnn Barkhouse, business liaison for the program, describes as a "system of systems" being developing for warfighters in 2010 and beyond. The program is expected to become a prototype for all the military services, she said.
Barkhouse said Objective Force Warrior introduces a far-ranging array of new capabilities, many of them embedded directly into the warfighter's uniform to reduce the heavy, cumbersome add-ons that have evolved over time. And unlike the current combat load, which imposes immense weights on the warfighter's back and shoulders, Barkhouse said the new system will center its lighter load at the body's strongest point: the waist and hips.
Gone will be the "Christmas tree effect." In its place, she said, will be a system that works with, rather than against, the warfighter's body and offers almost unimaginable new capabilities. "It represents a tremendous advance," Barkhouse said.