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If you set aside the debate about whether or not American troops should be duking it out with the Taliban et. al. in Afghanistan and Iraq, if you accept the resulting casualties and injuries as a inevitable by-product of any armed conflict, the two operational theaters are giving our troops tremendous practical experience in how to fight a war. Experience that would serve us in good stead if they had to fight another war which might have more popular support than this one. Er, two. One? In any case, one of the main takeaways from the battlefields: American military bureaucracy sucks. When it comes to tactical gear, money is not the problem. Supplier turf protection and administrative inertia—those are the real problems. To wit: The latest issue of Army Times tells the tale of a sanctioned supplier end-run, wherein “the Army spent about $4.4 million to buy 500 sets of designer equipment chosen by the veteran warriors of the Asymmetric Warfare Group to outfit most of the grunts in 2-12th, and part of a couple of others, 3-61st Cavalry and 1-12th Infantry. 2-12th scored about 300 sets of what they call the REF [Rapid Equipping Force] gear.” Guess how that turned out . . .

Quite well—for the soldiers. Here’s a bit of well-earned triumphalism from Magpul’s website.

Magpul PMAGs work in combat. Capt. Timothy Eastman gave his evaluation: “I wish we had gotten a full set of PMAGs for all the guys. They’re much more reliable than the standard-issue magazines as far as not falling apart and breaking mid-mission. They’re plastic; they don’t clink against all your other stuff. The bottoms don’t fall out like on the GI mags.

When better magazines are built, small non-military contractors will build them. And it’s not just bullet-holders, either. Pass the plate carrier please.

The plate carrier was far and away the biggest hit with the soldiers. Every soldier agreed dropping 4 pounds off the Improved Outer Tactical Vest (plus the 5 pounds of side plates and 2 pounds of other related equipment) felt great.


Leaders and gunners were big fans of the lightweight Mark 48 7.62mm machine gun. It was made for Special Operations Command, and the Army is using them as a stopgap measure until its M240L is fielded. The MK48 is about 9 pounds lighter and nine inches shorter than the M240B, while giving up only a 3 percent decrease in maximum effective range.


Because the unit was deployed and the REF had an office in Bagram they were able to end run the Berry Amendment and spend up to $1 million on boots that weren’t made in the U.S. They ended up buying thousands of boots favored by the Army Rangers, including boots from Scarpa, Asolo, Kayland and Lowa.

Although there were some misses, the majority of the new equipment out-performed standard-issue kit where it counts: in the field.

After six months of testing, the men of the 2-12th decided the new gear is far superior to the standard-issue kit.

How will their experience affect the equipment issued to the rest of the fighting force?

To quote my old friend Mandark, ha! Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Ready?

Cole says a commander has several options to bring this equipment to his soldiers, pointing out that some methods are more streamlined than others. The traditional route is the slow Joint Capability Integration Development System.

If a unit has discretionary funds, it can buy its own equipment. “The only thing we restrict is personal protective equipment,” Cole said.

Units don’t have discretion to sidestep the Army’s testing requirement or procurement laws for items such as body armor and helmets. On the other hand, Cole said he wouldn’t get in the way of a unit buying something that increases their effectiveness as long as it’s not a PPE item.

Another way is through the Operational Needs Statement process. “This is only for deployed forces or forces that are about to deploy,” Cole said.

Soldiers that want to see their unit get a new piece of kit would send an ONS to their division, which will send it through their theater command.

Contacting the REF to start a franchise project in theater is an additional way for units to get their hands on gear quickly — if the REF finds merit in their request. Units in Afghanistan can contact the REF office at Bagram Airfield.

Still, when you’re talking about an institution as chronically constipated as the U.S. Army, some progress is better than none right? I mean, soldiers are dying out there . . .

[Col. William] Cole said he recognizes that the need to bring better equipment to the field can be stymied by an overburdening procurement process. As far as studies such as the load assessment, “I think it drove tighter collaboration between the PEO, the REF and the AWG,” he said. “Stuff like the [load] study beforehand is what forced the collaborations between those agencies and really opened doors.”

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  1. Actually, Robert, over the 25 year period of my military service (from 1980 to 2005) I saw some tremendous changes and improvements in both equipment and in the rapidity with which that equipment was procured. Consider that in 1987 when I was in Germany, we were going to the field in Deuce-and-a-half trucks (M35A2) that dated back to roughly the late 50's, Jeeps (M151A2) that dated back to the early 60's, were wearing field jackets that had their origins in the Korean war, and were sleeping in GP Medium tents that dated back to Korea or possibly to WWII. All those items are long out of service now and I've actually been very impressed by how quickly the military has adopted superior civilian-sourced gear.

    Still, the Army is an enormous bureaucracy, and just like an aircraft carrier will never be as nimble as a PT boat, a big organization like the Army will never be as nimble or as quick to change as the civilian market.


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