By David Vergun
FORT BELVOIR, Va. -- Young Soldiers often want to wear a uniform that looks cool, while lawmakers want cost effectiveness, but the Army's priority is protecting the Soldier from harm.
That's what Col. Robert F. Mortlock, project manager for Soldier Protection and Individual Equipment, Program Executive Office Soldier, said he aims for, along with other important goals like comfort, fit, price, protection from the environment and durability.
As the Army pivots to the Pacific region, it is looking to develop a new jungle boot. Testing of some vendor-supplied prototypes could begin this summer, Mortlock said.
A good jungle boot, he explained, would shed water, meaning it can dry out fast after submersion. It also would be lightweight and breathable to minimize the effects of high temperatures and humidity. The lugs (tread) on the outsole would also be able to trek through mud with minimal slipping. Also, the leather should not dry out and crack from repeated wetting cycles.
The most important factor in the development of the jungle boot -- or any new boot for that matter -- he said, is Soldier feedback from real-use, rigorous testing.
"We do this rigorous user testing because we want Soldiers to trust and have confidence in their equipment so they can focus on their primary mission. And we've built up that trust over a number of years," he added.
One of the biggest recent improvements in boot design is "direct-attach outsoles," Mortlock explained that soles that are glued, not stitched, to the bottoms of boots, make some pairs of Army Combat Boots up to 1 pound lighter. The direct-attach outsoles are also less apt to separate after long, rough usage.
But equally importantly, he said, direct-attach outsoles have reduced lower leg injuries to Soldiers because they reduce the shock transferred to the foot and leg.
The adoption of "universal sizing" is also important. Until the Army adopted universal sizing, a Soldier wearing size 10.5 boots and who ordered another pair of the same size from another vendor might find the new boots somewhat smaller or bigger than the boots being replaced. This is because commercial vendors use different molds, or "lasts" for building their footwear. The Army now requires that a universal "last" or mold, be used by all of its boot vendors to ensure that Army-issue boots have universal sizing. This will reduce the logistics trail and save time for Soldiers and their units, Mortlock added.
Another criteria, that doesn't really relate to safety and comfort, is that any boot that's produced for Soldiers and issued by the Army has to be made entirely in the U.S. out of U.S.-manufactured textiles and materials, per the Berry Amendment, which was originally passed by Congress in 1941, and codified into law as 10 USC 2533a. Soldiers are authorized to wear boots of their choosing, even if they are not Berry Amendment compliant, as long as these boots conform to Army Regulation 670-1 "Uniform Appearance Regulation." Soldiers are authorized to use their clothing replacement allowance for these.
Master Sgt. Benjamin Owens, a 20-year Army veteran who was interviewed along with Mortlock, said that even though many Soldiers opt to buy their own footwear, in his opinion, the best boots are standard issue.
"As a drill sergeant, I've foot marched hundreds of miles in different terrains in these," he said, pointing to the standard-issue boots he was wearing.
"Younger Soldiers sometimes go for a flashy look in a boot," he said, adding that they often pay a price for doing so.
Adding to Owens' comment, Mortlock said, "Any time you choose a different boot, you're trading off something: durability or breathability, or something else."
When a Soldier first joins the Army, they're issued two types of standard Army Combat Boots, the hot weather and temperate weather variants. Soldiers later receive an annual clothing replacement allowance for boots.
Other specialized boots are issued for specific mission requirements. Soldiers deploying to Afghanistan are issued mountain combat boots, tailored for rough, mountainous terrain found in the eastern part of that country. That too comes in a hot-weather and temperate weather variant.
Aviators and vehicle combat crewmen are issued flame-resistant boots that fit their mission.
There are also intermediate cold/wet-weather boots and extreme cold-weather boots.
Specialized boots are not part of the Soldier's annual clothing replacement allowance, so Soldiers are simply issued new ones when their old boots wear out.
The Army just completed the most extensive uniform camouflage testing in history, in which thousands of Soldiers participated over multiple lanes of effort, Mortlock said.
He explained the importance of camouflage to a Soldier's mission:
"The bottom line is the enemy can't kill, hurt or injure who they can't see," explained Mortlock. "We have testimonials from Soldiers in theater close enough to the enemy to hear them saying they can't see the American. That's powerful. That's a combat multiplier."
Although much has been done, camouflage testing continues, Mortlock said. The Army evaluates "all the options" and is reviewing the fiscal year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act to ensure any camouflage decision is in full compliance with the NDAA. The NDAA states that the Army can "use existing uniforms and patterns and use the patterns of sister services."
The ongoing tests will continue this month and next at Fort Benning, Ga., and will be followed up at Fort Polk, La., and Yuma Testing Ground, Ariz.
The tests are seeking to determine a family of camouflage patterns that perform better than the present Universal Camouflage Pattern, known as UCP. Separate patterns designed for arid, transitional semi-wooded, or heavily wooded terrain tend to perform better than a single pattern, which seeks to provide concealment in all three environments.
Criteria for testing the patterns, Mortlock said are "detection and blending."
For those criteria the Soldiers wearing the different patterns are put at a variety of distances, lightings, backgrounds and movements from Soldiers who serve as spotters. These Soldiers are timed as they try to pick the camouflaged Soldiers out from the environment.
So far, tests show that at a range between 25 and 50 meters, the pattern matters, meaning it is critical for blending in the environment. At distances greater than 50 meters, the pattern itself is less important than the general colors of the camouflage.
Once the testing is complete, Army leadership will use the test results to reach a decision on whether to keep the present camouflage pattern or adopt one of the new families of patterns. One option would be to adopt a transitional pattern for general Army use, and to keep the more specialized arid and woodland patterns in reserve until they are requested by a combatant commander.
"The other thing about camouflage that sometimes gets lost is, we're not changing the combat uniform," Mortlock added. "It'll still be called the Army Combat Uniform. All that we're doing is updating the camouflage on the Army Combat Uniform."
"Whatever we do, we're going to do in a fiscally-responsible manner," Mortlock said.
A number of organizations collaborate in the science, research, development and testing of combat boots and camouflage uniforms. These include PEO Soldier; the Army Test and Evaluation Command, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.;, the Maneuver Center of Excellence, Fort Benning, Ga.; U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, Fort Eustis, Va.; and the Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center, Natick, Mass. The effort also benefits from interaction with commercial vendors who develop and produce combat boots, uniforms and other gear.