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The soldier’s load: Some basic facts that should be in every NCO’s rucksack

The soldier’s load: Some basic facts that should be in every NCO’s rucksack

By Jim Gourley
Best Defense office of physical and mental fitness

The Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted (and the entire NCO Corps) needs to get a better education on the soldier’s load.

Last week’s arguments presented by Aaron Ferencik and Sebastian Bae illustrate how urgently we need to reconsider Professional Military Education and training for NCOs. The foundation of senior enlisted advisors’ standing in platoons, companies, and battalions is supposed to be their vast knowledge and experience of “ground level” matters that aren’t taught in officer schools where courses focus on Clausewitz and PowerPoint. The problem is that NCOs often confuse personal experience and point of view with ground truth. The aforementioned contributors demonstrate that by missing the mark on both sides of the soldier’s load discussion.

The assertion that any infantryman (or infantrywoman) would routinely have to carry 152 pounds in combat is unfounded. The 2003 U.S. CALL Task Force Devil Combined Arms Assessment Team report found the average fighting load for an infantry platoon member to be between 62.43 and 81.38 pounds, depending on position. The emergency approach march load fell between 127.35 and 147.82 pounds. These measurements were taken by weighing absolutely everything troops carried with them, including water. These figures are in line with the history of soldier load carriage. A British Infantryman in 1776 carried approximately 80 pounds on the march, the same as Roman Legionnaires in 100 A.D. There are of course outliers, such as British troops in Burma and American paratroopers in France during World War II, who carried loads of up to 120 pounds. It should be noted, however, that the paratroopers quickly shed excess gear and the British made as much use as possible of beasts of burden.

History also confronts Bae’s assertion that “the trend even in the Marine Corps is to move towards technology that lightens the load for the infantry so they don’t have to carry 152-plus pounds.” Technology has done nothing to lighten the load. The bitter joke goes that modern troops carry a hundred pounds of the most lightweight equipment you can find. We’ve gone from leather, steel, and canvas to rubber, carbon fiber, and nylon, and we’re still no better off than the infantry of Caesar. The fact that building smaller batteries for all the gadgetry in a trooper’s pack is among the latest of the Marine Corps’ initiatives to lighten the load ought to tell us something about the infantryman’s relationship with technology.

Plenty of research has been done showing that it doesn’t matter where you place the physical standard. The upper bounds of combat performance have been well-established in terms of caloric expenditure and aerobic endurance. There’s also a skeletal issue. While marching and weight training do contribute to increases in skeletal strength, the upper bounds of a person’s ability to strengthen their bones are established in adolescence. Further to the point on training, it’s absurd to think that you improve a trainee’s ability to march under heavy loads by starting them under extraordinary weight. It’s the equivalent of throwing someone in the gym and having them curl 50 pound dumbbells all day to add a quarter inch to their bicep. The only result you’ll get is to break them. Marching your recruits around at the unit-standard pace for the unit-standard distance while carrying the unit-standard load is just throwing eggs against the wall, and every egg will break at some point.

Waiting for a robo-donkey to be delivered to your platoon is not a solution. Nor is the false hope that DARPA will finally come through with exosuits with built-in plasma energy shield generators. Science has done yeoman’s work for the infantry squad. It’s published a cornucopia of findings and recommendations on how to address the combat load and the man or woman carrying it. It’s also all readily available through Google. A few reading recommendations:

“The History of the Soldier’s Load,” by Lieutenant Rob Orr. Australian Army Journal, Volume II, Number 2.

“Donkeys Led by Lions,” article in The British Army Review, number 150.

“Optimizing Operational Physical Fitness,” NATO Research and Technology Organization Technical Report TR-HFM-080.

“Physiological and Psychophysical Responses of Male Soldiers to Changes in Marching Gradient, Speed and Load,” Graduate Thesis by Andrew Ivan Todd, Rhodes University, 2001.

As a final note, I cannot give a high enough recommendation to the further works by Rob Orr. The Australian military has wisely been adopting his research into practice for years to great effect. The U.S. military would save itself much headache and homework to do the same.

Jim Gourley is a regular contributor to The Best Defense and the author of Faster: Demystifying the Science of Triathlon Speed.

Photo credit: Sgt. Sarah Anderson/U.S. Marines