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US Combat Clothing Poised to Take Huge Leap Forward - 2002-05-31

The U.S. military has come a long way since the Revolutionary War era, and so has combat clothing. But so-called battle dress uniforms are poised to take an extraordinary leap forward.

In the 18th century, soldiers often wore long, brightly-colored coats, white trousers and tri-cornered hats. Soldiers in the near future will wear camouflage-colored fatigues with integrated body armor, an on-board climate-control system and built-in medical sensors.

Jean-Louis "Dutch" De Gay is a project engineer with the U.S. Army's Soldier Center. The former member of the elite Rangers says historically the Army has taken soldiers and given them equipment and later worked to improve the equipment.

This time, Mr. De Gay says, engineers have started from the skin and worked out, essentially rebuilding the soldier. One goal they have achieved is to cut in half the 40 or more kilograms of clothing and external equipment currently being worn by soldiers in Afghanistan. "What we are trying to do at the very fabric uniform level is consolidate all those systems into one so we lessen the overall bulk and weight of the individual soldier. And that is throughout the system from head to toe," he says.

Take, for example, the proposed new helmet. It will be bullet-proof, but will also have such built-ins as infrared, thermal and day/night video cameras, chemical and biological weapons sensors, as well as a display monitor.

Inside the uniform itself, Mr. De Gay says there will be medical sensors. "It is a multi-function garment, working from the inside out, that incorporates a suite of physiological status monitors that allows the medics on the battlefield to know exactly how the individual soldier is so we can take care of him medically before an injury happens as well as after an injury occurs," he says.

The Army also plans to do away with varying types of combat uniforms designed to adjust to climates by adding temperature control systems in the new clothing. These include tiny tubes through which hot or cold air is pumped.

"This system is micro-climate conditioned, which means we have the ability to heat him and cool him in this individual system..." says Mr. De Gay

On the outside of the uniform are built-in layers of chemical and biological weapons protection, so the Army can do away with additional gear that must now be worn over the current combat clothing.

Backpacks and rucksacks are also being done away with, and necessary external equipment will be hooked onto the uniform using new load-bearing straps.

The resulting overall image is akin to that of a science-fiction-like space warrior. Mr. De Gay uses the word "ominous" to describe it and says that could potentially intimidate an adversary. "It is just very ominous-looking, which helps us even better when we deploy in-theater and we deploy overseas; that our enemies and our potential friends realize that we are very ominous on the battlefield," he says.

In a throw-back to earlier Army eras, soldiers will still in the future depend on mules to carry their additional supplies.

But the new mule will be a wheeled, robotic one. In addition to carrying a soldier's gear, it will purify water, re-charge batteries and conduct reconnaissance.